Centre for Employment Studies Research

CESR Review: April 2008

Book review

Acker, Joan. (2006) Class Questions, Feminist Answers, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp218.

In Class Questions, Feminist Answers Joan Acker, takes up an issue that has long troubled social scientists, namely, how to synthesise the analysis of class, gender and race. What makes this especially important for students of work and employment is that, central to her arguments, are issues relating to labour (paid and unpaid) and the role of business organisations in maintaining what she calls an ‘inequality regime’, defined as: ‘the configuration of inequality-producing practices and processes within particular organisations at particular times’ (p. 10). After an introduction, the first two chapters deal with the problems feminists have raised with the concept of class and she summarises many of the debates that have raged over half a century. Chapter three develops some theoretical apparatus, including the notion of social provisioning (borrowed from Julie Nelson), which expands the usual understanding of labour, such that it includes all labour socially necessary to sustain life and ensure survival. Chapter four is, in part, historical, tracing the origins of contemporary class, gender and racial inequality, and in part theoretical, developing more theoretical apparatus, including the idea of corporate nonresponsibility, defined as: ‘refusals or attempts to avoid contributions to meeting the needs of people, if these contributions do not directly enhance production or accumulation’ (p. 94). Chapter five focuses especially on work and employment, dealing with the role of work organisations in maintaining inequality regimes, through practices of wage setting, hiring, firing, promoting, job-design and expectations about ability, based on a model of the worker as un-distracted by outside obligations, such as domestic responsibilities. Chapter six discusses contemporary changes in gendered and racialised class relations in the USA, although many of the changes are applicable elsewhere. Chapter seven concludes by sketching a set of policy proposals for alleviating the class, gender and race-based inequalities, and considers the prospects for achieving them. Although her optimism is dimmed by the dominance of neoliberalism, she reminds us of Karl Polanyi’s observation from the mid-1940s, that: ‘at certain points, capital has to act to save itself from the consequences of its own markets’. Maybe, she adds, this will ‘once again prove to be accurate’ (p. 12).

 

Steve Fleetwood, CESR

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