Discuss the interrelationship between race, class and gender.
How might this affect equality of opportunity?
The structural foundations of social functioning have long been the preoccupation of sociologists. Above all, the focus of such preoccupation has rested on the degree to which structural limitations impact upon the individual and collective agency of human beings. Such structural forces can manifest themselves in a variety of forms. However, the issues of race, class and gender have invariably assumed a position of prominent importance in the structure/agency debate (Zack et al, 1998). When acting in relative isolation, race, class and gender all represent pertinent areas of investigation into the social constructs which limit agency and thus in doing so impact directly upon equality of opportunity. However, in recent decades sociological endeavour has become increasingly concerned with the manner in which interaction between race, class and gender can dramatically increase the protracted nature of inequality in society. Above all, it is undoubtedly apparent that what Chancer & Watkins (2006; p. 1) term “intersectionality” heavily determines the social outcomes of both individuals and collective groups.
The purpose of this work is to assess the interrelationship between race, class and gender, and the degree to which such interconnection impacts upon equality of opportunity. It will be shown that all three phenomena act as socially formed structures which determine social attitudes and outcomes. Thus, this unequal imbalance between social structure and collective agency directly impacts upon access to social opportunities. Moreover, given that the interaction between race, class and gender enhances exclusionary social tendencies, then it is quite obvious how intersectionality negatively affects equality of opportunity in society.
In order to offer effective determinations as to how the interrelationship between race, class and gender impacts upon equality of opportunity, it is first necessary to provide greater detail as to how structural imbalance affects social outcomes. Ultimately, the basis of concepts like race, class and gender are not determined by biological necessity, but rather are formed as a direct result of social constructs (Byrne, 2006). As such, definitional parameters such as those currently under investigation are social formations which attempt to characterise specific groups as being distinct from other groups. Such social groups are therefore socially defined in a way which engenders difference. The consequence of viewing purely social constructs in terms of difference then results in the formation of structural inequality on the basis of such social definitions. Thus, what Grusky (1994; p.1) terms “social stratification” allows for structural inequality to pervade social processes in a way which results in lack of opportunity on the basis of group membership. During the 19th and 20th centuries class was viewed as being the essential example of social stratification in action. Detailed assertions proffered by social commentators like Karl Marx clearly pointed to socio-economic inequality being the basis of structural limitations in society (Saunders, 1990). Thus, certain social classes fail to gain access to the structural opportunities, benefits and rewards available in society because of class based inequality.
Using class as a form of social stratification remains immensely relevant to modern social processes. However, during the latter 20th century the concepts of race and gender began to achieve equal importance to sociological investigation regarding the foundations of social inequality. Above all, both race and gender impact on equality of social opportunity in the same manner as class (Byrne, 2006). Stratification thus once again results in group’s becoming socially defined and treated unequally on the basis of such definition.
As suggested above, the interaction between race, class and gender enhances the potential for structural limitations to impact upon equality of access to opportunity. Indeed, a plethora of examples serve to exemplify how such impact is increased by the intersectionality at work. For example, inequality on the basis of class results in socio-economic conditions limiting the opportunities of certain class groups in areas such as education and work based training and development (Chancer & Watkins, 2006). However, structural social constructs of gender roles also affect the degree to which certain people can access work and education based opportunities. Considerable academic attention has been paid to how traditional gender roles in the working class serve to restrict the access women have to education and employment (Crompton, 1988). Thus, when such gender based exclusion is combined with structural limitations on the basis of class, it is clear to see how the interaction between these two social constructs serves to enhance unequal access to opportunity.
Furthermore, if one chooses to look at race as an indicator of reduced access to social opportunities, similar cross-social phenomena are clearly at work. For example, in Britain during the 1960s it became increasingly apparent that the welfare state had failed in its post war objectives of eradicating poverty (Byrne, 2006). However, the degree to which poverty acted as an issue of concern in society was far greater among newly formed ethnic populations than with British whites (Byrne, 2006). Moreover, given the socio-economic deprivation required for the emergence of poverty, such racially formed groups invariably tended to be members of the lower social classes – the same class they were members of in the countries they had left, (though some ethnic groups, e.g. Indians, tended to be middle-class in contrast to the village peasant working class that comprises most Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants, so it may be unwise to generalise). Indeed, although the stark nature of this interaction has altered somewhat since the 1960s, it is nevertheless arguably the case that class based poverty and racial identity remains an integral social interaction which serves to limit opportunity for certain groups in society (Zack et al, 1998). Furthermore, the above discussion on assigned gender roles in the working class could equally serve to impact upon socio-economic based class stratification and ethnic status. Thus, it is easily possible to see the degree to which the interaction between race, class and gender often serve to increase the prevalence and severity of inequality of opportunity.
In conclusion, over recent decades the sociological debate regarding opportunity has moved beyond the narrow confines of poverty indicators. Such development is personified by the concept of social exclusion. Exclusion from the social processes of society can occur as a result of a variety of foundations. However, although the use of social exclusion has allowed sociologists and social policy thinkers to better understand the nature of inequality of opportunity, the basis of such exclusion remains essentially the same – although the social and disadvantage exclusion of the white, male working class shows that it is nonsensical to assume that all men and white people are somehow advantaged . Thus, the interaction between race, class and gender will continue to dominate academic discourse on the relationship between structural limitations and collective agency for some time to come.
Byrne, B (2006) White Lives: the interplay between race, class and gender in everyday life, London: Routledge.
Chancer, L.S & Watkins, B.X (2006) Gender, Race and Class: an overview, London: Wily-Blackwell.
Crompton, R (1988) ‘Class Theory and Gender’ British Journal of Sociology, 40 (4), pp. 565-587.
Grusky, D.B (1994) Social Stratification: class, race and gender in sociological perspective, New York: Westview.
Saunders, P (1990) Social Class and Stratification, London: Routledge.
Zack, N; Shrage, L & Sartwell, C (1998) Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality: the big questions, London: Wily-Blackwell.