In this collection of both previously published and new essays, social scientists, historians, and economists attempt to resuscitate the study of class by employing a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches. Such efforts are warranted, Hall maintains, because in the last few decades, the study of class has been in a crisis. On the one hand, rigid structuralist approaches to class analysis have been largely discredited for their ahistorical generalizations. On the other hand, poststructuralist class analysis too often reduces the examination of class to the motivations of specific actors and peculiarities of events and time periods, leaving the concept of class too fluid and obscure to be meaningful. How does one study class across time periods, political systems, and even economic systems while acknowledging that different cultures in different times possess unique languages and ideologies? Although the authors in this volume do not reach a consensus about how to avoid the perils of structuralist versus poststructuralist approaches, their central thesis that class analysis is nevertheless critical to scholarly inquiry is, in the end, persuasive.
The thirteen authors utilize a variety of methodologies, from traditional historical analyses to the deconstruction of language. For example, John Walton’s study of California’s Cannery Row in the early twentieth century—one of the most interesting and accessible of the essays—employs a traditional historical approach to the conflicting ethnicities in the canning and fishing industries.
Margaret R. Sommers’ chapter, however, deconstructs and then reconstructs thinking about class formation. Like most of the essayists, Sommers is not content merely to summarize debates about the study of class, although her essay serves that useful purpose; rather, she suggests that the concepts of “narrative identity” and “relational setting” should replace “interest” and “society,” respectively (87, 88).
Similarly, Dale Tomich deftly explains the theoretical underpinnings of the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and David Brenner, finding fault with both the emphasis upon the market and upon production relations, and instead suggests that “the social construction of production processes and the historical specificity of relations of production” are [End Page 304] more useful analytical tools. Reprinted also is Erik Olin Wright’s highly regarded 1989 essay on rethinking class structure.
The essays also cover a wide range of subjects and sources. From Sonya Rose’s chapter on the “quintessential worker” (137), to Michael Donnely’s deconstruction of statistical classifications in Britain and France and William Brustein’s and George Steinmetz’ analyses of twentieth-century Germany, the authors draw from many different time periods, economic systems, and cultures. Variation in subject matter is reflected in the diversity of sources, which include census data and other official statistics, personal interviews, and newspapers, as well as the theoretical works of such thinkers as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although, taken together, the essayists do not offer a single perspective or solution to the present crisis in the study of class, their work powerfully reasserts the central importance of social structure to many different disciplines.
Readers should be warned, however, that those unfamiliar with the lexicon of deconstruction will find many of the essays in this volume tough going. Too often the chapters are riddled with poststructuralist language that seems unnecessarily obfuscating. Terms such as “discursive turns” (15), “existential moment” (18), and “encoded metanarrative” (76), although fashionable, may be obstacles for many scholars who wish to benefit from the insights provided by these essays.