Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften

Project Outline

Global Inequality, Social Classification and Existence


Theoretical framework

The overall project enquires into contemporary social inequality against a global horizon. Inequality is not understood as economic stratification or division of labour but as the unequal distribution of chances to carry out activities that are valued in society. Amartya Sen (2006) distinguishes “capabilities” and “functionings”, i.e. chances to live a socially valued life and the actually lived life as it is socially valued. “If we see development in terms of enhancement of human living and the freedom to live the kind of life that we have reason to value, then there is a strong case for focusing on ‘functionings’ and the ‘capability’ to function” (Sen 2006, p. 35). Functionings – or as we could more generally say, activities – comprise production and consumption as well as artistic expression, political engagement, discussion, leisure etc.

Access to each social activity is more or less restricted. In order to carry out an activity, a person requires specific resources, e.g. an academic title, a physical ability or money. This is what Sen’s term “capability” aims at. Pierre Bourdieu (1989) has conceived of capabilities in a more systematic and sociological way by analyzing the resources that give access to socially valued activities in the framework of a division of “capital”. The social division of capital, for Bourdieu, is a society’s social structure. Bourdieu distinguishes between economic capital, “cultural capital” (knowledge and possession of culturally relevant objects, symbols and practices), “social capital” (socially relevant relations) and “symbolic capital” (symbolically codified superiority). Instead of the economic term “capital”, we will use the term “resources” to refer to all types of capabilities (Souza 2011).

People acquire basic modes of behaviour in the environment they grow up in. A mode of behaviour is a resource for social activity as well as a mode of carrying out activity. Bourdieu has used the term “habitus” to refer to embodied resources – in the double sense of resources and ways of acting. The habitus comprises tendencies to act that are acquired in the life-course. Ways of acting have to be learned in a specific society and in a specific social environment. Therefore, they are socially, culturally and historically specific or differentiated. They also change more slowly than other aspects of society because they are embodied and form the bases of social persons. Habitus is a tradition inscribed in a person.

People acquire their basic stock of habitus and resources during their life course in a certain social environment, which is usually that of their family. As environments differ, different people acquire different amounts and types of resources. People whose resources are similar in amount and type can be classified as a social group by the observer. Social groups tend to reproduce their social resources in relation to other social groups, they are partly embodied in their members, and therefore they have a certain continuity over time, even if society changes in many regards (Bourdieu 1989).

People having similar habitus are likely to conceive of themselves as a social group and to be conceived of as a social group. They are also likely to possess similar resources and to carry out similar activities. With Michael Vester (2003), we can call these habitus groups “milieus”. Milieus resemble classes because they are based on the unequal distribution of resources in society. They are not classes because they focus on habitus, relate resources to activities and include the dimension of culture.

Resources, habitus and activities are not objectively given but socially defined. Each resource, each habitus trait and each activity is symbolically codified and socially classified. It usually has a name, which implies an evaluation. Each evaluation reconfirms social differences, while each social difference is interpreted on the basis of the available evaluations and reconfirms them (Souza 2011).

This social classification implies “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu 1998) if it implies social inequality. The universe of symbolic codifications is a “discourse” (Foucault) in the sense that it is taken for granted and prescribes what can be thought and what can be said in a given society. However, it is not a homogeneous universe comprising the entire society – as Foucault had it – but it is a socially differentiated symbolic universe. The state has a particular power over the symbolic universe and the national language but each milieu has its own symbolic universe and each milieu tries to modify the national symbolic universe to its advantage.

Symbolic universes have largely been national universes during the past century, underscored by national languages, national media and national elites. This is beginning to change with the current tendencies of globalization. The international use of English, the global domination of a few media conglomerates, religions and the transnationalization of elites are constructing spheres beyond the nation state. Global capital plays an important role in this process but changes its character as well. The industrial capitalist has given way to financial flows and institutions of global reach with few local anchors. In the long term, this will affect inequality – in terms of resources, activities and symbolic codification.

At the core, the overall project focuses on the relation between the unequal distribution of resources and symbolic violence. In order to arrive at a proper theoretical framework and an empirical insight into contemporary inequality, it also needs to analyze the social division of activities, existing milieus, processes of social classification, the general ethos of societies and milieus, the impact of global capitalism and the relation between global, national, transnational and local variants of society. The final step could consist in an analysis of the subjective experience of social inequality: the social differentiation of “being-in-the world” in a specific society and in global comparison.



The milieu is the entry point into the analysis of social structure and into the project. To establish existing milieus, narrative life-course interviews and the method of habitus hermeneutics should be the first step. This method (established by Vester et al.) consists of brief life-course interviews with persons considered typical for particular milieus. The interview covers family of origin, childhood, schooling, peer group, contemporary situation and outlook. It is assessed through sequential analysis, preferably carried out by a multicultural group. The habitus interview could be replaced by a more extensive, narrative life-course interview for this project.

The second step seeks to link milieus to the symbolic universe, especially symbolic violence. To assess the relation between milieus, symbolic codification and social classification, marriage and partnership are investigated: interview questions, participant observation and pile sorting. This should render insight into strategies of milieu reproduction and the evaluation of other social beings.

In order to analyze social classification, group discussions could be carried out during the group analysis of the available habitus hermeneutics interviews (see in the methodology of habitus hermeneutics). It means that the process of analyzing the interviews in a group of people from different backgrounds could be conducted as a group discussion and then be analyzed as well. The hypothesis is that this discussion will indicates us more about the social classifications and habitus of a determined culture.

The third step of the project is more ambitious and involves all kinds of data that are accessible, primary as well as secondary. A hypothetical construction of the global division of activities needs to be done in order to link milieus and symbolic universes to the activities that are valued. At the same time, the milieus need to be linked to the global division of resources. Finally, the forces establishing and influencing the division of resources and the symbolic universe (evaluation of resources, social classification, evaluation of activities and symbolic violence) need to be identified and analyzed. This analysis is most likely closely linked to global capitalism.