Monday, March 14, 2011

Against the Mere Study of Domination

Anarchist-sociologists argue that domination and inequality should not just be studied, but also actively opposed. Study is (maybe) a good first step, but then domination must be reacted and responded to. Large numbers of sociologists share this position, too (e.g. so-called “public sociologists”). The world-renowned academic linguist (and anarchist) Noam Chomsky (2005) discusses how such a critique must be followed by action:
I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. (p. 178, emphasis added)

Thus, according to Chomsky, the task is to first understand domination and inequality and then do away with their manifestations. Anarchist-sociology is interested in the study and transformation of society.

But, what is problematic with pure study, which is the usual endpoint for most sociologists? Studying inequality (and those who are dominated) turns the phenomenon (and the people affected by it) into objects of inquiry, thus abstracting and fetishizing the dominated and their needs. The distance implicit in research (with the exception, maybe, of militant ethnographic research methods) creates a crucial disjunction, and further dominates the dominated and privileges the already privileged.

Scholarship feeds the career of academics and policy-makers—thus keeping hierarchical systems like universities and governmental agencies humming along without challenge. Research is conducted in such a fashion that it serves the interests of academics’ careers. The placement of articles in academic journals or presentation at conferences does little to reach those most immediately impacted by hierarchy and domination. In fact, most research exaggerates that social distance, not only in the forum chosen, but also the esoteric and jargon-laded delivery. Even if such research could have liberatory potential for the dominated, it cannot reach them (especially in an unfiltered form) as it is sequestered away in the archives of the Ivory Tower (Martin 1998).

Dominated people need ammunition in their hands to fight back against oppressive power and hierarchy. Research on inequality and injustice can provide this firepower, but who will wield the weapons? To the extent that research is used at all, the traditional scholarly peer-review process within the world of academic journals has tended to only further enable the agency of politicians, policy-makers, and bureaucrats. According to Saul Alinsky (1972), the father of modern community organizing (and a once-aspiring sociologist), speaks to this troubling and lop-sided disconnect:
As an undergraduate, I took a lot of courses in sociology, and I was astounded by all the horse manure they were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery and despair. I mean, Christ, I'd lived in a slum, I could see through all their complacent academic jargon to the realities. It was at that time that I developed a deep suspicion of academicians in general and sociologists in particular, with a few notable exceptions.… So I realized how far removed the self-styled social sciences are from the realities of everyday existence, which is particularly unfortunate today, because that tribe of head-counters has an inordinate influence on our so-called antipoverty program. Asking a sociologist to solve a problem is like prescribing an enema for diarrhea. (n.p.)

Who determines what weapons should be available, and how useful or liberatory they should be? Presently, the isolated researcher, operating within the confines of academia and only influenced by peers, makes these decisions. The resources, intellectual toolkits, and expertise are generally not made available to dominated communities; when studied, the dominated usually find themselves to be research objects poked and probed in ways they do not necessarily control, value, or benefit from.

So, who should use research findings to oppose inequality and how should that opposition be manifested? Should non-dominated individuals (e.g. straight, White middle-class men) be advocates or spokespersons for dominated groups? How about academics who are themselves members of disadvantaged groups? How exactly should any academics contribute and in what ways? When academics attempt to answer this question—as we are presently trying to do—we exercise not only our privileged positions, but also impose our own preferences, world-views, and biases.

These issues are important since they inform the question of who ought to act to eliminate inequality. Anarchists strongly claim that people must be active agents in their own liberation. Consequently, the liberal claim that the welfare state will help the poor is not just troublesome, but incorrect. When the state acts it is taking away the important, empowering experience that the poor could—and should—be having. The state is not necessarily acting how the poor would choose to. There is also ample evidence (e.g. Piven & Cloward 1993) suggesting that social welfare policies—even if well-intended (itself debatable)—serve to squelch revolutionary action and social disorder that could overturn hierarchical institutions. Once rebellious disruption diminishes, the welfare state retracts its “generous” assistance, thrusting the disadvantaged back into a position of austerity and want.

While assistance to the disadvantaged from well-read and researched state, technocratic, and intellectual figures can be perhaps helpful in the immediacy, it has negative long-term consequences. According to anarchist theory, saviors should not be trusted (or at least entrusted with one’s future). One needs to save oneself. Even “altruistic” saviors—such as charismatic social movement leaders—are problematic as they rob people of their autonomy, confidence, experiences, and right to rebel. Instead, anarchism argues for the immediate and direct action of the disadvantaged to oppose domination and inequality, action that does not rely on authority to create a more equal and just society. Authority figures who can hierarchically grant assistance create new forms of inequality; according to anarchism, one form of authority should not replace another (even if they represent a more benign and “kind” form).


Alinsky, Saul. 1972. “Empowering People, Not Elites”. Playboy. Available:

Chomsky, Noam 2005. Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland, AK Press.

Martin, Brian. 1998. Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education. Date accessed: July 28, 2006.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1993. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

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