Structural Inequality

My approach to working up this difficult and abstract concept is to specify a simple social context from which a structural inequality emerges.   Using this example, I will describe a general picture of structural inequality.

A woman that I know, let’s call her Mary, has a seat in the monthly executive-level strategy meetings at the company where she works. Fourteen people regularly attend these meetings, 10 men and four women. In the formal corporate hierarchy, she is on the third tier from the top, which is the lowest that participates in such meetings. She is one of two people and the only woman on her level.

Her male colleague, John, with whom she is in direct competition for promotion and other benefits, is younger than her and was hired after her. In the spirit of a team working for the interests of the company, all participants are expected to offer their thoughts and ideas and are tacitly evaluated by their superiors on their contributions to the discussion. Indeed, the opinions of each are explicitly solicited, and Mary is often asked what she thinks about the issue at hand.

Now for some reason, Mary is also tasked by the president of the company with taking meeting notes. There is no obvious reason for Mary to get this particular assignment, but on one occasion when Mary was not able to attend a meeting, the note-taking responsibility was given to her immediate supervisor, also a woman, rather than to the man at Mary’s level. These strategy meetings are fast-paced and require quick and creative thinking from participants.

The problem for Mary is that taking notes on such conversations makes it extremely difficult to contribute to them. Her bearing this responsibility thus puts her at a disadvantage with respect to the adequacy of her participation. She is negatively evaluated for what appears to be a lack of insightful and creative thought. If, however, she were to resist the note-taking assignment, she would be penalized for lacking team spirit. Were she to do the note-taking job poorly, she would be judged incompetent, so she diligently takes precise and comprehensive notes. This fact, of course, seems to offer some justification for the president’s decision to assign the task to her and ensures that it will remain hers.

Moreover, since she is taking the notes, everyone else in the meeting is free to concentrate fully on strategizing. So her good work serves to improve the performance and thus the evaluations of others. This has the effect, especially for John, of increasing their status in the eyes of their superiors relative to hers. Hence her considerable efforts work against her own interests.

Mary is encircled in what Marilyn Frye calls a “double bind,” a kind of trap that limits her options and opportunities and makes the avoidance of penalty impossible.1

Mary’s plight is not necessarily apparent to the casual observer, so there is no reason to think that the president intends to put her in this situation.  The evaluative criteria are the same for everyone in the meeting. All are expected to participate. Mary has a seat at the table, and her opinions are actively solicited. Note taking in itself isn’t a particularly odious or difficult task, and it arguably gives Mary an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the team. All might seem fair if each element of the situation in which Mary finds herself is considered in isolation from the others. But if all of these considerations are taken together, it is clear that Mary is at a disadvantage relative to her colleagues.

Borrowing Peter Blau’s spatial metaphor, Iris Marion Young provides a generalized account of this kind of inequality. According to Blau,

A social structure can be conceptualized as a multi-dimensional space of differentiated social positions among which a population is distributed. The social associations of people provide both the criterion for distinguishing social positions and the connections among them that make them elements of a single social structure. 2

Each meeting participant occupies a particular social position, the features of which condition the options and opportunities that are available to the occupant. Each of these positions is defined and thus differentiated from other positions by the relationships that exist between them. These relationships also connect each position to every other position, and it is by virtue of such connections that the various social positions together constitute a social structure or social space.

In Mary’s strategy meetings, such relationships include but are not limited to the patterns of authority and deference of the formal corporate hierarchy, social norms, role assignments and responsibilities, evaluative criteria, expectations, etc. An important correlate of this picture is that the positions and their features are relationally constituted. Each position in the structure is differentiated by its relationships to other positions, and the set of conditions that a position places on the options and opportunities of its occupant are a function of the relations in which it stands with other positions.3

As a specific example,  consider the position of note-taker in the social space of Mary’s strategy meetings. The features of this particular position are constituted in part by the fact that every other position does not carry with it the assigned responsibility of taking meeting notes. And reciprocally every other position is in part constituted by the fact that the note-taker position has note-taking responsibilities.  So conditions on the options and opportunities of the occupant of the note-taker position are partially a product of the fact that the other positions don’t have note-taking responsibility.

Consider that Mary’s difficulty comes in part as a result of the fact that though she is held to the same evaluation criteria as everyone else, she has an additional cognitive burden that no one else has. If either everyone or no one were to have this extra burden, then the disadvantage that Mary suffers as a result of her being the only note taker would not exist. Moreover, conditions on the options and opportunities of those who occupy positions that do not have note-taking responsibility also come in part as a result of the fact that the note-taker position has this responsibility. The advantage that everyone else enjoys because they are free of note-taking responsibility comes in part as a result of the fact that Mary is taking notes. And again, if everyone or no one were to be required to take notes, then this advantage would not exist. Mary is unequally positioned relative to her fellow participants in that her position carries with it a constraint on her options and opportunities that disadvantage her relative to the others in the meeting. Furthermore, her disadvantage is reciprocally related to their advantage.

Generalizing a bit more from my example, the reciprocal relation between the advantaged and the disadvantaged (and thus structural inequality itself) can be constructed in at least three overlapping but distinct ways. First, a social structure, in which some occupy positions of privilege, necessarily puts others in disadvantaged positions, so individuals in the privileged positions are granted a sort of positional good that is denied to those who are not. Next, it will often be the case that disadvantaged individuals are relegated to performing service work for those with privilege, e.g. wives caring for the emotional needs of husbands, housekeeping staffs and secretaries freeing up their employers’ time, etc. And lastly, the privileged often extract value from the disadvantaged. The benefits that advantaged persons receive enable them to improve their position relative to the disadvantaged. The energy that a disadvantaged person expends is thus used against her in a way that furthers her disadvantage.

From here, we can work up, in very general terms, the further notion of a social group. Such groups consist in people who occupy similar social positions. So we can say that the existence of a note-taker position in the social structure of Mary’s meetings creates at least two groups: note-takers, of which there is only one member, and non-note-takers, which has 13 members. There is a complex myriad of other overlapping social groups in even this simply social context as well: those who are on the same levels of the corporate hierarchy, those who are in various departments, men, women, etc.

Like the positions that constitute them, social groups have features that condition the options and opportunities of their members. We may also conceive these features and the groups that bear them as relationally constituted, so the existence of a group that consists of a set of similarly disadvantaged positions implies the existence of another group that consists of a set of positions which are advantaged with respect to those disadvantaged positions. The presence of structurally unequal groups in a social structure thus entails social stratification.

There is much more to be said, but this should begin to shed some light on the notions of social structure and structural inequality. Societies have a social structure. Individual persons occupy social positions in this space that are differentiated by the relations between positions. These relations determine the features of each position, and these features condition the options and opportunities of the occupant. Positions that exhibit relational similarities form the social groups which typify the divisions and hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and, as Haslanger defines it, gender.4

An additional aspect of structural inequality is that inhabiting a particular position often involves significant and psychological effects The relations in which a particular position stands with other positions condition and constrain the options and opportunities of its occupant, and these constraints and conditions are often internalized by the occupant through socialization processes with the effect that the selves of some people are reduced, fragmented and alienated.

Focusing on the positions that constitute gender, the unequal and oppressive set of norms that characterize the genders may be understood as the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and when internalized these ideals become important elements of people’s identities. Sandra Bartky has argued that the internalization of femininity distorts the psychological development of women in a way that reduces and fragments their selves. For example, women who have internalized femininity may be significantly less inclined to question the roles that they are expected to play and norms that they are required to follow.  This is not a simple matter of women not being allowed to speak or not being heard.  It is not even that women may be afraid to openly question and criticize the way things are.  While all of these factors may also be in place, a deeper problem is that women may be psychologically conditioned such that they do not even feel a desire to speak. As Bartky suggests, a person, who has internalized the conditions, constraints and norms of the positions to which “woman” refers, is likely to feel quite at home in her femininity. She is also likely to see the subordinate relationships that she and other women have with men as entirely natural as well. So in addition to being an effect of the structural inequality of gender, the internalization of gender ideals should also be seen as a mechanism for the maintenance of gender itself.

While my focus is on gender,  it is very important to note that sexism is not the only such structure. Similar accounts could be given of inequalities based on class, sexual orientation, age, disability, ethnicity, religion, and so on.

1 See Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression” from The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983).

2 Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity (New York: Free Press, 1977), 4.

3 Young, Iris Marion.  Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 92-99. See also Young, Iris Marion. Justice and Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 43-65.

4 Young 2000 93-94. Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55; Mills, Charles W. “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race” in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 41-66.

5 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 23-32.



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The pathology of white privilege

I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but I know Tim Wise and his work.

White people! Watch it!

Feminist Philosophers

A long video by Tim Wise; worth having in your collection

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Sally Haslanger on Gender

How to understand gender is a complicated issue that has not been settled in any conclusive or definitive way. And it is not my goal here to enter this discussion. For now, I wish only to describe roughly how Sally Haslanger understands gender in order to make better sense of her analysis of objectification.

Along with Haslanger, I assume the sex-gender distinction that is common in the feminist literature. According to this picture, “sex” refers to those biologically determined facts about a person that relate to one’s role in sexual reproduction. There are at least two sexes, “male” and “female.” “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to a socially constructed position that a person occupies in society, and there are at least two genders, “man” and “woman,” i. e. those who are “masculine” and those who are “feminine.”  According to the standard way of thinking, these two ideas are connected in that an individual’s perceived sex plays some role in determining his or her gender. This is, for now, very vague, but a more precise account will be sketched later.

Assuming the viability of the sex-gender distinction, there are further questions about how many sexes and genders there actually are. Though my focus is on men and women, I am committed neither to the claim that there are only two genders (or only two sexes) nor the claim that there should only be two genders.

Serious questions do arise about “how far down” socially constructed gender goes and indeed about the stability of the sex-gender distinction itself. I doubt that a clear-cut way to demarcate gender from sex is forthcoming. But there are significant social, political and economic inequalities in our society that correlate with perceived roles in sexual reproduction.

Haslanger has developed a characterization of gender as a social construction.

S is a woman if and only

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

S is a man if and only if

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact privileged (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic privilege, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is privileged, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of privilege.1

Haslanger’s definitions involve two notions that will need to be elucidated further, the ideas of social positions and structural inequality. I understand social position, as, I believe, does Haslanger, in terms of social structure. And the existence of some positions that are privileged or subordinated relative to others means that the social structure that contains these positions has a structural inequality.

1.Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55,  Page 42

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Home Birth: Increasingly Popular, But Dangerous – The Daily Beast

Oregon doctor Martha Reilly’s hospital often receives home-birth transfers, and she says every OB there has treated a woman rushed in with a dead or severely injured baby. “The death rate that we’re looking at, in terms of preventable deaths, it’s outrageous,” she says.

Home Birth: Increasingly Popular, But Dangerous – The Daily Beast.

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A healer in the king’s court faces a unique challenge. To truly be effective, he or she must think critically. This means often ignoring the dictates of the king’s laws, which may be the cause of illness in the first place. Healers must be savvy enough to recognize that although current conditions are obviously not working, it is by navigating within those conditions that the people will be reached and the medicine delivered on time.  ~Bakano Warrior

Early in my doctoral studies, I struggled to bridge the worlds of Black and “mainstream” psychology. I found them both lacking when it came to the issues of people who didn’t fit the traditional mold. As a young Black woman – and also a Buddhist, a mom, a wife, an artist, and an activist – I had a hard time finding myself or people like me within the walls of traditional psychological training…

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This is a great, insightful piece.

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Fabulous Feminist Moms

This is a good read.
Coming up with a “final” definition of feminism is, I think, impossible. Furthermore, it’s probably a good idea to resist the temptation to do this at all. If, as Feminist Cupcake notes here, feminism is about equality for everybody then it should always be forward looking. It should always be leaning towards recognizing new kinds of injustice, new kinds of inequality. The feminism ideal is better understood as a disposition to criticize existing institutions and social structures with an eye towards justice.
Stay-at-home moms can most certainly be feminists. And if some feminists say they aren’t, then we need a brand new feminism to work against the stigmatization of stay-at-home moms.
And that reminds me, I need to add that I’m a part-time stay-at-home dad to my “about” page…

Feminist Cupcake

The other night I noted that slamming women who choose to be stay-at-home moms is one of my pet peeves because this completely overlooks the real issues women face, i.e. being understood and understanding ourselves as valuable, capable and empowered and having access to the resources to be free to make choices. Culturally, Western thinking frames childcare as womanly or domestic work and therefore undervalues the complexity and necessity of this kind of work. (In the comments to my last rant on this topic – a good buddy of mine, Jeff Nall pointed out that Val Plumwood does a great job of detailing the fault in this type of thinking – noting that “the core features of patriarchy, including the devaluation of “domestic” duties … wants to take out lifeboats for elite women to join elite men, leaving behind the rest.”

We can’t draw lines in the sand – we…

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“My Lethal Weapon’s my Mind”

Ice-T, Juan Williams, Tipper Gore, Jello Biafra and Nelson George, all on the Oprah Winfrey Show (circa 1990) discussing the influence of rap music on white teenagers.

Alright, alright.  That’s not what half of them take themselves to be talking about, but that’s what they’re talking about.

What’s striking to me about this is that I actually remember seeing this discussion around that time (I was in high school), and I can vividly remember being completely against Ice-T and thinking that he was truly evil.  (Did I mention I’m white and that I grew up in the South?)

But now I can’t watch this without really being astounded at the implicit white supremacy and complete erasure of the experience of young black men that comes through in what a lot of these people are saying.  It’s all over the discussion, but I especially direct your attention to the white male audience member who’s speaking at the break between the first and second video below.

The other angle is that there is a serious problem with misogyny going on as well.

So what is my opinion?  I honestly don’t know what to think about it.

I do think that criticism of misogyny in Ice-T’s music, as if he and other hip hop artists are uniquely or especially misogynistic, belies the implicit white supremacy I mentioned above.

Misogyny is everywhere in popular music going back a very long time.  See Johnny Cash (“I shot my woman down”), Led Zeppelin (“The soul of a woman was created below”) and countless other white musicians of all genres.

None of that’s to say that there isn’t and wasn’t serious misogyny in hip hop, but any justice minded person should worry when charges of misogyny are deployed from a white supremacist standpoint in order to silence black men.

I have to think that it’s possible to reconcile gender justice and racial justice.

So, yeah, watch this.  And wonder if we’ve made some progress since 1990.  Or if we’ve gone backwards.

Yes, it’s (annoyingly) in four parts.  Yes, it’s Oprah Winfrey.  Yes, it’ll take you about 45 minutes to get through it.  Yes, should watch it anyway.

But first, watch  Ice-T’s Lethal Weapon (the link is to the lyrics), which is – frankly – a work of genius.

And here’s the Oprah in four parts.

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The Purgatory Line

Alright, so I’ve got a blog-crush.

Music, Feminism, and Fiction.

Official Blog-Crush Song.

Sometimes I can laugh.  Other times I cry.
It ain’t exactly funny. My feet are both on fire.
I guess they’ll just burn for a while.
Waitin’ in this purgatory line.

Lovin’ you is so easy, but waitin’ here just ain’t.
I know I can be patient, but please don’t hesitate to cross my mind.
That’s all I’ve got for a while.
Waitin’ in this purgatory line.

Drive-By Truckers – The Purgatory Line – YouTube.

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Petition to take down pro-harassment sign

Feminist Philosophers

Sometimes the internet is so awesome. A few days ago, Liz Harman put up a Facebook post about an offensive sign she’d seen. Magical Ersatz did a post on it. And now, two days after that post, Holly Kearl at Stop Street Harassment has started a petition to get the sign taken down. To sign the petition, go here. The sign, of course, is this one:

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