Social inequality – or at least the form it takes – is not inevitable. Both structural functionalism and conflict theory (which roughly map to the political right and left in the United States) have explanations which are quickly becoming irrelevant and historical.
Let me explain.
In discussing the teabaggers (which I did here) John Scalzi once again demonstrates why he is my favorite political pundit even though he’s not a political pundit – and yes, moreso than Jon Stewart. His observation crystallized the unsettling feeling that I had been getting during my social inequality class this term. That feeling was that everything we were discussing is historical, and having less and less relevance to today.
I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s still true. The old ways of doing class, race, and gender are still present. There are still activists who wish to preserve these inequalities, and still activists who wish to completely overturn all of these systems in a radical overhaul of society.
But a synthesis group is emerging. Rather than solidly take either side, they’re much more interested in looking at the problems that currently exist – and fixing them.
The study of both sides is still worthwhile. The functionalists have spent a lot of time and energy discovering the roles and functions that are played out in society – both those that are “good” and those that are “ill”. Likewise, the conflict theorists have spent a lot of time and energy uncovering the hidden assumptions of structures of power, and the ways they play out in less-than-obvious ways. The lessons of both are vitally important to know what is necessary, and what traps to avoid.
Yet at the same time, the conflict theorists have the greatest practical failing. As theoretical descendants of Hegel, they have the concept of societal development through thesis meeting its antithesis, and a synthesis of the two developing. The continued insistence that their way of thought is solely correct is a violation of their own conceptual framework.
Regardless, that synthesis is developing – and will continue to develop throughout time. Right now, we should look at the positions of both and take what is useful (and desired) for society as a whole, and reject what is not.
To do so requires a fierce honesty, an openness to different and opposing ideas, and admission of both failings and successes. And it is this sort of mentality that Scalzi – among others – exemplifies.
Maybe more of us should strive to emulate his approach.
Though, perhaps without the bacon.