Contested concepts

Published : Dec 18, 2009 00:00 IST

WHAT impact does globalisation have on inequalities may appear to be a straight question until it is admitted that these two widely used terms are rather ambiguous. Sylvia Walby, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Gender Research at Lancaster University, U nited Kingdom, deals with the problem of ambiguous or contested concepts in this volume in simple terms. She has the additional task as a theorist, and a social theorist at that, to show how such concepts have to be handled when critiquing and constructing theories.

It may come as a surprise to many that terms that have entered into day-to-day conversations are ambiguous, but one may not pause to contest them. Consider two such terms that one reads of every day and constantly uses: economy and polity. The way we talk about the size of the economy, its rate of change over time and so on may give the impression not only that there is such a thing but that it is some kind of an object out there that can be precisely measured and with some effort shaped to ones liking.

It is often forgotten that this objectification of the economy is something that has been crafted by theorists by making some arbitrary assumptions, which usually go unnoticed. The most crucial of these is the decision that only what can be measured will be included for consideration (based on the widely held but basically wrong notion that a prime requirement of science is measurement) and that prices, objectively arrived at by the market, are the units of measurement for the economy.

Let us concede for a moment that all goods produced can be priced and measured in this manner, and that most services too can be similarly quantified and measured. Once this is done it is possible to pronounce, as a greatly respected economic theorist of the 20th century did, that economic activity consists of work done for payment, either to produce goods, or directly to render services (Sir John Hicks of the U.K.).

This appears to be a satisfactory way of conceptualising the economy as a measurable entity, but there is a problem. What a man does (or does not do) sitting in a chair behind a desk in an office from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be treated as work because he gets paid, but the wide variety of tasks his wife does at home without a time limit will be excluded from economic activity, and consequently from the economy, simply because she does not get paid for them. Great injustice, we may say when expounded in this manner, but that is not the point. What then is the economy out there that everyone is talking about? Is it an object or a mental construct?

Sylvia Walby has a whole chapter on Economies dealing with this question and establishing that the economy is a contested concept. The point that she makes is that once domestic labour also is taken into account, the economy becomes, has to become, a very different entity and an ambiguous concept. (I am a little surprised, though, that she does not use the homely example I have given above. Her work is strictly scholarly.) Take it a step further. What if some domestic labour, let us say, care-giving for children or the elderly, is taken over by the state as a welfare responsibility, neither to be freely done nor to be directly paid, but through appropriate fiscal measures? Obviously, there will have to be a further modification of the concept of the economy.

The polity may be a less definitive concept than the economy but frequently enters into popular parlance. It carries with it some familiar institutions, the state for instance, and the nation. But what is the relationship between the state and the nation? And what is meant by a nation-state? Should all states aim to be nation-states? Where is the European Union consisting of many states and diverse nationalities to be situated within the notion of polity? These queries and much more are discussed in another chapter of the book. The discussion provides many issues to ponder over. Consider this: The nation-state is a powerful myth about purity. It is about a nation having a state of its own so that it can self-regulate its environment in conformity with its values. The nation-state myth is about the close fit of a nation and its own state, with its own politics, economy and culture mapping onto one another in the same territory.

The economy and the polity are two of the four institutional domains that Sylvia Walby uses as part of her analytical frame. The other two are civil society (familiar enough) and violence, which comes as a surprise initially, but with convincing justification provided. Violence was until recently considered as situated in the public domain within or between states, but then how does one locate domestic violence that takes place within the privacy of the home, and terrorism whose base and activity transcend state boundaries?

These, of course, are not Sylvia Walbys central problematic. She is concerned with globalisation and inequalities. What she argues is that traditional conceptual frameworks are not adequate to deal with these issues, one that is relatively new and the other long-standing. Both the concepts need to be critically scrutinised. Globalisation, she says, is not a unified phenomenon; it would have been better to say that it is a multi-stranded phenomenon with economic, political, technological, cultural and moral strands to it. That is why it becomes a contested concept. Further, Awareness of globalisation has disrupted conventional accounts of neatly bounded, separated, and endogenously determined societies. The simple conception of society as constituted by spatially and temporally congruent structures of economy, polity and civil society is rejected on the grounds that such congruency is rarely if ever achieved.

Add to it the need to go beyond the concept of inequality as being primarily related to the economy, more specifically the single-dimensional concept of income or wealth. Think of complex inequalities, which combine inequality and difference, as happens when gender differences are taken seriously. To put it differently, inequality is not a matter of class alone.

It is also one of (at least) gender, and any attempt to conflate these different forms of inequality into a single notion is a mistake, mainly because they have quite different dynamics. Indeed, inequality is associated with many other attributes too ethnicity, language, social origin, disability, sexual orientation and much more, and there is no way the inequalities arising from them can all be reduced to the same notion.

So, where does it all lead to? What is the big question for which an answer is sought? All the analysis, groping and speculation is to see whether it can be claimed that humanity is making progress at the beginning of the 21st century. Progress?

Another contested concept! Dealing with it, Sylvia Walby examines whether it is economic advancement, reduction of inequalities, human development, social inclusion, democracy, ecological sustainability. She has much to say on each of them.

There are some categorical answers too. There are neither fully globalised nor fully separate societies. Societies as they have been traditionally understood do not exist. Conventional conceptions of society involve the coincidence of economy, polity, and culture in the same territory. However, ethos and polis, culture and polity, rarely map into each other completely. The notion that a single culture, state, and economy map into each other in a one-to-one way in a modern nation-state is a myth. Also, The concept of society should be replaced by a process of societalisation, a process often begun but rarely fully completed.

Basically, the book is an invitation to take up further research in social theory, rethinking core concepts. The author also recommends complexity theory, which offers a new set of conceptual tools that are capable of grasping new issues of change and interconnections on a large scale.

The books empirical content is limited and, in a globalising context, surprisingly confined to the United States and the European Union. Students of and researchers in social theory may find the exposition and the 40-page bibliography helpful, but general readers will find the work unnecessarily repetitive and tedious.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment