Academic journal article Social Justice

Race, Ethnicity, Nation, and Class within Theories of Structure and Agency

Academic journal article Social Justice

Race, Ethnicity, Nation, and Class within Theories of Structure and Agency

Article excerpt

CULTURAL HOMOGENIZATION AND THE UNIVERSALIZATION OF "WESTERN" VALUES AND behavior were presumed by liberalism and Marxism alike to be among the component results of "progress."(1) Differences, and therefore conflicts, historically rooted in class, racial, ethnic, or national structures, were gradually to fall behind, obsolete and exhausted by the long, inevitable march forward. Modernization theories, hegemonic in North American social sciences and state policy in the 1950s and 1960s, forsaw a linear progression, at home and abroad, toward a broadly "middle class" consumer society in which the market and liberal-democratic institutions would erode class, racial, and national conflict, and, of course, triumph over communism. The great American "melting pot" would eventually relegate racial and ethnic divisions to history books. Foreign investment and aid would set Latin America, Asia, and Africa on the path toward modernization, middle-class prosperity, and therefore stability.

Marxists certainly foresaw a more conflictive, painful, and bloody road ahead, since the material wealth and power of the national bourgeoisies and imperialists would first have to be appropriated by the world's toilers. With that accomplished, however, socialism could be constructed and class differences eliminated, thereby naturally resolving the "secondary" contradictions posed by racial or ethnic differences. There were, of course, as many versions of the Marxist narrative as there were of the modernizationist scenario, some more structuralist and others more voluntarist. Today, relatively few Left intellectuals or activists would defend the disservice we did to Marx with dogmatization that surely sent him spinning in his grave. Liberalism, on the other hand, and only slightly reworked modernization scripts, are enjoying renewed box-office appeal worldwide. Virtually the entire world has lovingly embraced capitalism and electoral democracy, or so liberalism's booking agents and publicists would have us believe. Surely we are about to finally witness the globalization and universalization of Western culture, the end of class, racial, and national conflict -- the "end of history," in the now much over-hyped phrase.

Yet daily events throughout the world indicate everything to the contrary. African-Americans, Lations, and Korean-Americans in Los Angeles were the main protagonists in racially and ethnically charged reactions to last year's verdict in the Rodney King case. Malcolm X's legacy has been embraced by a new generation of American Blacks. The aggressive, even violent, defense of white, middle-class, male privilege has gained new legitimacy in the U.S. and England after the extensive efforts of Reaganism and Thatcherism to reconstruct national political culture. The nations of the former Soviet bloc are splintering into apparently ever more hostile, often ethnically-based territories. The threat of racially and ethnically driven fascism is again a reality in much of Europe. The Germans and French are increasingly polarized over the issue of non-European immigrant populations. Indigenous peoples throughout Latin America have achieved a new level of self-awareness and organization that has significantly altered the political terrain of several nations. Islamic movements and governments are increasingly important in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. There is no end to the list of major world events that underscore the degree to which interests, demands, and conflicts based on the tangled identities of class, race, ethnicity, and nation persist, indeed even flourish, in a world system that liberals and Marxists both presumed would become more homogeneous as systemic structures were globalized.(2) The failure of both social scientists and political activists to fully understand these phenomena is in large part due to our inadequate grasp of the relationship between human agency and social structure.

A good deal of sociological theory has aimed at accurately conceptualizing the relationship between social structure and the agency of the human subject. …

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