Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge that women are exploited in marriage and family life, but they emphasise the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the family’s effects on women. Marxist feminists use Marxist concepts, but they see the exploitation of women as they key feature of family life.
The reproduction of labour power
‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the Capitalist class, because they only have to pay one person in the family– the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husbands needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free, and women also do most of the child care for free, thus reproducing the next generation of workers for free.
A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:
‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’
(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)
Finally, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.
‘As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.
Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family
David Morgan argues that the traditional nuclear family is becoming less common and so this theory is less applicable today
They also ignore the fact that women have made progress in family life – life is better within families today for women, as Liberal and Difference Feminists point out.
Jennifer Somerville (2000) provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change. She can thus be characterised as a liberal feminist, although she herself does not use this term.
Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.
To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.
The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.
Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.
However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.
What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.
Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.
Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family
Sommerville recognises that significant progress has been made in both public and private life for women
It is more appealing to a wider range of women than radical ideas
It is more practical – the system is more likely to accept small policy changes, while it would resist revolutionary change
Her work is based on a secondary analysis of previous works and is thus not backed up by empirical evidence
Radical Feminists such as Delphy, Leonard and Greer argues that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.
A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family – Executive Summary
Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.
Solutions to Inequality – Social Policies designed to make working hours more flexible.
Sources Used – Haralambos and Holborn – Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition
Eight possible ways in which some aspects of Marxist Theory and concepts might still be relevant today… Relevant to A2 Sociology Theory and Methods (details to follow)
A class based analysis of global society is still relevant if you look at things globally.
Exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system if you look at the practices of many Transnational Corporations.
If you look at the recent bank bail outs it appears that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
If you look at how individualised we have become it appears that many people are still under ideological control – but we don’t realise it.
Work is still Alienating for many people.
Economic crises are still inherent to the capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.
Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it.
In Britain there are tens of thousands of people who call themselves Communists and who sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement. Left Wing criticisms and the anti-capitalist movement is still very much alive today.
The Marxist Perspective is a central theory within A level Sociology. This post outlines some of the key concepts of Karl Marx such as his ideas about the social class structure, his criticisms of capitalism and communism as an alternative.
This is a slightly modified version of the AS Sociology intro handout on the basics of Karl Marx’s thought.
Karl Marx (1818- 1883) was alive in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s important to realise that his theories stem from an analysis of European societies 150 years ago.
Marx travelled through Europe during the mid and later half of the 19th century where he saw much poverty and inequality. The more he travelled the more he explained what he saw through unequal access to resources and ownership of property, wealth. He argued that the working class (proletariat) in Britain (and elsewhere) was being exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie).
The ruling class paid the working class less wages than they deserved, made them work long hours in poor conditions, and kept the profit from the sale of the goods produced. Thus, the ruling class got richer and the working class became increasingly poor, and had no way of improving their prospects, unless… Marx argued, they all came together to overthrow the ruling class in a revolution. Equality for all in the shape of Communism would replace an unequal capitalist system.
Because Marx’s theory is based on criticising Capitalism, you really need to understand what Capitalism is – see the separate Handout/ blog ‘what is Capitalism’?
Key Ideas of Karl Marx
1. Capitalist society is divided into two classes:
The Bourgeoisie or the Capitalist class are the ones who own and control the wealth of a country. These control the productive forces in society (what Marx called the economic base), which basically consisted of land, factories and machines that could be used to produce goods that could then be sold for a profit.
The majority, or the masses, or what Marx called The Proletariat can only gain a living by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie for a price.
2. The bourgeoisie increase their wealth by exploiting the proletariat
Marx argued that the bourgeoisie maintain and increase their wealth through exploiting the working class.
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. Because of this extraction of surplus value, the capitalist class is only able to maintain and increase their wealth at the expense of the proletariat. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
Marx thus argues that at root, capitalism is an unjust system because those that actually do the work are not fairly rewarded for the work that they do and the interests of the Capitalist class are in conflict with the interests of the working class.
3. Those who have economic power control all other institutions in society
Marx argued that those who control the Economic Base also control the Superstructure – that is, those who have wealth or economic power also have political power and control over the rest of society.
Economic Base(The Mode of Production)
Consists of the forces of production (tools, machinery, raw materials which people use to produce goods and services)and the relations of production (social relations between people involved in the production of goods and services). Together these make up the mode of production
All other institutions: The legal system, the mass media, family, education etc.
4. Ideological Control
Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.
5. The result of the above is false class consciousness
The end result of ideological control is false consciousness – where the masses, or proletariat are deluded into thinking that everything is fine and that the appalling in which they live and work are inevitable. This delusion is known as False Consciousness. In Marxist terms, the masses suffer from false class consciousness and fail to realize their common interest against their exploiters.
Commodity FetishismA fetish is an object of desire, worship or obsessive concern. Capitalism is very good at producing ‘things’. In capitalist society people start to obsess about material objects and money, which is necessary to purchase these objects. Material objects and money are worshipped in capitalist societies. Some people even need material objects to construct identities – this is partly responsible for keeping most of us in ‘false consciousness’
6. Revolution and Communism
As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth – Capitalism was unjust but people just hadn’t realised it! He believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.
Criticisms of Traditional Marxism
Marx’s concept of social class has been criticised as being too simplistic – today, there are clearly not just two social classes, but several; moreover, most people don’t identify with other members of their social class, so it is questionable how relevant the concept of social class is today.
Clearly Marx’s predictions about capitalism ending and the ‘inevitable success of communism’ have been proved wrong with the collapse of communism.
Capitalism has changed a lot since Marx’s day, and it appears to work for more people – it is less exploitative, so maybe this explains why it still continues to this day?
Evidence that Marxism is still Relevant Today
Contemporary Marxist sociologists argue that Marxism is still relevant in many ways. For example:
1) Family = Parents want the perfect family and they compete with one another for the best house, car, holiday and the best dressed/most successful children etc. This is encouraged through advertising and TV programmes. Significant sums of money are spent in pursuit of the “perfect” family. This benefits the bourgeoisie in two ways 1) Parents work harder at work improving profits for their companies owners – the bourgeoisie 2) Parents spend more of their salary on providing this lifestyle – this benefits the bourgeoisie as they can make more profits by selling goods and services to the parents. Furthermore, it makes parents feel “happy” about family life and society generally, even though they might work 13hr days for an average salary, rarely seeing their family. Lastly, children grow up watching their parents behave in this manner and then replicate it as adults with their own families.
2) Media = the mainstream media is controlled by few wealthy individuals who promote the ideas and beliefs that maintain the bourgeoisie’s wealthy position in society. This encourages people to accept beliefs which benefit capitalism and legitimise (justify) the exploitation of the proletariat (workers) as normal. The media justify exploitation and even make it into games shows.
3) Education = encourages people to accept hierarchy and to be obedient. This is good for capitalism as it creates students who will later become good workers. Also, schools emphasise high achievement and high flying jobs – implicitly this means highly paid jobs, better profits for company owners and more exploitation for the workers. Schools also encourage the idea people get what they deserve in education, when in reality educational achievement is primarily a result of the chance circumstances of your birth i.e. who your parents are.
One of the things you need to look at for the AS Education module is the extent to which material deprivation is responsible for educational underachievement. While statistics give you an overview of the extent of poverty, and a little bit of information of the kind of things poor people can’t afford, they don’t give you much a feeling of what it’s like to actually live in poverty.
To get a feeling for day to day challenges of living in poverty you need more qualitative sources, and ‘thankfully’ we are blessed with a number of recent documentaries which look at the experience of living with material deprivation in the UK.
Watch the documentary sources below and then answer the questions/ contribute to the discussions below. The videos have all been selected because they focus on material deprivation and education in some way.
Source One – Poor Kids (BBC – 2011) – Mainly focusing on younger children
Poverty – Britain’s Hungry Children (Channel 4 Report, 2013) – Cites research drawn from 2500 food diaries kept by children in the UK – Some of whom live on less than half of the recommended calories. Also highlights the importance of lunch clubs to feed hungry children.
Finally watch this video – This shows you a case study of one girl from a poor background who actually made it into the best school in the area, against the odds. It’s a bit slow, but later on it gives an insight into the struggle her mum faces to raise enough cash to meet the ‘hidden costs’ of education (she has to resort to a ‘pay day loan’).
Questions/ tasks for discussion:
Q1: Draw an ‘ageline’ (like a timeline, I may have just invented the word) showing how material deprivation affects 3 year olds to 18 year olds in different ways.
Q2: From a broadly Marxist Perspective, the effects of material deprivation on children are structural, or objective if you like. Being brought up in poverty and having a poorer diet, and living in lower quality housing effectively cause poor children to do less well in education. This means that, all other (non material) things being equal (same school, same intelligence, same motivation etc) a poor kid will always do worse than a rich kid. Do you agree? Be prepared to explain your answer.
Material deprivation* refers to the inability to afford basic resources and services such as sufficient food and heating. To put it more simply, all of those who suffer material deprivation in the UK exist in a state of relative poverty, and some may exist in a state of absolute poverty.
The government’s material deprivation rate measures the proportion of the population that cannot afford at least four of the following items:
To pay their rent, mortgage, utility bills or loan repayments,
To keep their home adequately warm,
To face unexpected financial expenses,
To eat meat or protein regularly,
To go on holiday for a week once a year,
A television set,
A washing machine,
As can be seen from the statistics below, the number of people suffering from ‘severe’ material deprivation has remained stable in recent years, but the numbers of people struggling to pay for holidays and meet emergency expenses has increased.
*A fuller definition of material deprivation is provided by the The OECD which defines Material deprivation as ‘the inability for individuals or households to afford those consumption goods and activities that are typical in a society at a given point in time, irrespective of people’s preferences with respect to these items.’ It’s work noting at this point that this is a relative rather than an absolute measurement of poverty.
Evaluate the extent to which home based, rather than school – based factors account for social class based differences in educational achievement (30)
Focusing on home background initially, we can look at how material and cultural factors might affect a child’s education.
The lower classes are more likely to suffer from material deprivation at home which can hold children back in education because of a lack access to resources such as computers, or living in a smaller house means they would be less likely to have a quiet, personal study space. In extreme situations, children may have a worse diet and a colder house, which could mean illness and time off school. According to Gibson and Asthana, the effects of material deprivation are cumulative, creating a cycle of deprivation. This would suggest that home background influences a child’s education.
Also, the amount of money one has and the type of area one lives in affects the type of school a child can get to. Richer parents have more choice of school because they are more likely to have two cars or be able to afford public transport to get their children to a wider range of schools. Also, house prices in the catchment areas of the best schools can be up to 20% higher than similar houses in other areas – richer parents are more able to afford to move to these better schools. At the other end of the social class spectrum, those going to school in the most deprived areas may suffer disruptions in school due to gang related violence. All of this suggests that location, which is clearly part of your ‘home background’ in the broader sense of the word, is a major factor in educational achievement.
Cultural deprivation also has a negative effect on children at home. Bernstein pointed out that working class children are more likely to be socialised into the restricted speech code and so are less able to understand teachers at school compared to their middle class peers who speak in the elaborated speech code. The classes are also taught the value of immediate rather than deferred gratification, and so are less likely to see the value of higher education. In these theories, home background influences children all the way through school.
Although the concept of cultural deprivation is decasdes old, more recent research suggests it is still of relevance. Fenstein’s (2003) research found that lower income is strongly correlated with a lack of ability to communicate, while research by Conor et al (2001) found that being socialised into poverty means working class students are less likely to want to go to university than middle class students because they are more ‘debt conscious’.
Cultural Capital Theory also suggests that home background matters to an extent – this theory argues that middle class parents have the skills to research the best schools and the ability to help children with homework – and to intervene in schools if a child falls behind (as Diana’s research into the role of mothers in primary school education suggested). However, cultural capital only advantages a child because it gets them into a good school –suggesting that it is the school that matters at least as much as home background. There wouldn’t be such a fuss over, and such competition between parents over schools if the school a child went to didn’t have a major impact on a child’s education!
In fact, one could argue that probably the most significant advantage a parent can give to their child is getting them into a private school. To take an extreme case, Sunningdale preparatory school in Berkshire costs £16000/ year – a boarding school which confers enormous advantage on these children and provides personalised access via private trips to elite secondary schools Eton and Harrow. In such examples, it is not really home background that is advantaging such children – it is simply access to wealth that allows some parents to get their children into these elite boarding schools and the schools that then ‘hothouse’ their children through a ‘high ethos of expectation’ smaller class sizes and superb resources.
Similarly, the case of Mossborn Academy and Tony Sewell’s Generating Genius programme show that schools can overcome disadvantage at home – if they provide strict discipline and high expectation.
Although all of the above are just case studies and thus of limited use in generating a universal theory of what the ‘major cause’ of differences in educational achievement by social class might be, many similar studies have suggested that schools in poorer areas have a lower ethos of expectation (from Willis’ classic 1977 research on the lads to Swain’s research in 2006). It is thus reasonable to hypothesis that the type of school and in school factors such as teacher labelling and peer groups might work to disadvantage the lower classes as Becker’s theory of the ideal pupil being middle class and Willis’ work on working class counter school cultures would suggest, although in this later case, Willis argues that the lads brought with them an anti-educational working class masculinity, so home factors still matter here.
Finally – Social Capital theory also suggests that home background is not the only factor influencing a child’s education – rather it is the contacts parents have with schools – and later on schools with universities and business – that are crucial to getting children a good education, and making that education translate into a good job.
So is it home background or school factors that matter? The research above suggests home background does have a role to play, however, you certainly cannot disregard in school factors in explaining class differences in educational achievement either – in my final analysis, I would have to say that the two work together – middle class advantage at home translating into better schooling, and vice versa for the working classes.
If you like this sort of thing – then you might like my A-level sociology revision bundles: The bundle contains 5 full, 30 mark sociology of education essays, written for the AQA specification.