Interdisciplinary Approaches in the Social Sciences

In this post, we will cover the two empirical-critical approaches in the social sciences. These are Marxism and feminist theory. Both approaches are also classified as variants of the social-conflict theory in the social sciences.


Marxism owes its name and origins to Karl Marx (1818-1883), a German philosopher, historian, and economist. Macionis (2007) provides a very interesting profile of Marx of how he revolutionized both the thinking and theorizing about the state and society, and whose influence remains to this day. 

A keen observer of how the Industrial Revolution changed Europe, Marx spent most of his adult life in London, the capital of what was then the vast British empire. He was awed by the size and productive power of the new factories going up all over Britain. Along with other industrial nations, Great Britain was producing more goods than ever before, drawing resources from around the world and churning out products at a dizzying rate.

What astounded Marx even more was how the riches produced by this new technology ended up in the hands of only a few people. As he walked around the city of London, he could see for himself how a handful of aristocrats and industrialists lived in fabulous mansions staffed by servants, where they enjoyed both luxury and privilege. At the same time, most people labor long hours for low wages and lived in slums. Some even slept in the streets, where they were likely to die young from diseases brought on by cold and poor nutrition.

Marx saw his society in terms of a basic contradiction: In a country so rich, how could so many people be so poor? Just as important, he asked, how can this situation be changed? (Macionis 2007, 100-101). 

In 1848, he and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) co-authored the Communist Manifesto, a seminal work reflecting Marx’s theory of the state and society. Central to Marx’s thinking is the idea of social conflict, “the struggle between segments of society over valued resources” with class conflict arising from the way a society produces material goods (Macionis 2007, 101). Marx used the term class conflict or class struggle to refer to the “conflict between entire classes over the distribution of a society’s wealth and power” (Macionis 2007, 102).

Recognizing that the economic system is society’s infrastructure or the society’s real foundation, other social institutions such as the family, the political system, and religion are built on this foundation or economic base and form society’s superstructure and support the economy (Macionis 2007, 101).

Based on his own observations of the early decades of industrial capitalism in Europe, Marx set out to expose the inherent economic, social, and political contradictions of capitalism, how these contradictions lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences such as the intensification of class conflict and the immiserisation of the proletariat, and ultimately, to the overthrow of capitalism.

. . . industrial capitalism in Europe . . . turned a small part of the population into capitalists, people who own and operate factories and other businesses in pursuit of profits. A capitalist tries to make a profit by selling a product for more than it costs to produce. Capitalism turns most of the population into industrial workers, . . . called proletarians, people who sell their labor for wages. Capitalist production always ends up creating conflict between capitalists and workers. To keep profits high, capitalists keep wages low. But workers want higher wages. Since profits and wages come from the same pool of funds, the result is conflict .. . (which) could end with the end of capitalism itself (Macion is 2007, 101). 

To Marx, the end of capitalism will be prompted by the proletarian revolution. Industrial workers would soon rise up to overthrow capitalism. But he knew that the revolution would not come easily. Marx premised that first, industrial workers must become aware of their oppression under a capitalist system and realize that capitalism is the cause of their oppression. Second, the proletariat must organize and act to address their problems. This means that they develop their class consciousness, “workers’ recognition of themselves as a class unified in opposition to capitalists and ultimately to capitalism itself” (Macionis 2007, 103).

Class consciousness is different from false consciousness, “explanations of social problems as the shortcomings of individuals rather than as the flaws of society.” To Marx, “it is not ‘people’ who make society so unequal, it is the system of capitalist production … and (F)alse consciousness … hurts people by hiding the real cause of their problems” ((Macionis 2007 101).

Marx also critiqued capitalism for producing alienation, “the experience of isolation and misery resulting from powerlessness” (Macionis 2007, 102). He identified four ways in which capitalism alienates workers:

  1. Alienation from the act of working: Capitalism denies workers a say in what they make or how they make it. Work is a constant repetition of routine tasks. Workers are replaced by and/or turned into machines.
  2. Alienation from the products of work: Workers’ product belongs to the capitalists who sell it for profit. As workers invest more of themselves in their work, the more they lose.
  3. Alienation from other workers: Industrial capitalism creates competition in work that prevents bonds of community to develop, and hence, sets each worker apart from everyone else.
  4. Alienation from human potential: Capitalism prevents workers to develop their best qualities as human beings. Instead of fulfilling one’s self in work, one denies one’s self; instead of well-being, misery; instead of freely developing one’s physical and mental energies, one gets physically exhausted and mentally debased (Macionis 2007, 103).

All these ideas discussed above became the foundation of what was referred to as “Classical Marxism.” Classical Marxism, that version of Marxism that was dominant for the first 100 years after Marx’s death, consists of four related ‘isms’, namely, economism, determinism, materialism, and structuralism.

Marxism is economist to the extent that it privileges economic relations and determinist to the extent that it argues that economic relations determine social and political relations . . . The mode of production of material life determines consciousness and the economic ‘base’ determines the ‘superstructure’, so agents have little, if any autonomy. The position is materialist because Marx argues that material relations shape ideas and the dominant idea at anytime are those that forward the interests of the ruling class, that is, the owners and controllers of the means of production. … Marxism is also structuralist to the extent that it contends that structures, particularly economic structures, determine the actions of agents. …In this way, the state has no choice: it acts as an agent of the ruling class (Marsh 2002, 155).

The past few decades, however, witnessed critics of Marxism struggling to rid Marxism of its economism, determinism, materialism, and structuralism. To date, these main tenets of Marxism are now almost universally rejected by modern Marxists (Marsh 2002, 156). In a nutshell, modern Marxism “rejects economism; rejects determinancy, emphasizing contingency; rejects materialism, acknowledging an independent role for ideas; rejects structuralism, accepting a key role for agents; no longer privileges class, acknowledging the crucial role of other bases of structured inequality; and, to an extent, privileges politics (Marsh 2002, 161).

Three broad explanations account for the near demise of classical Marxism and consequently, the rise of modern Marxism.

  1. “Marxists have responded to theoretical critiques from both inside and outside the Marxist tradition,”
  2. “Such an economistic formulation has proved unable to explain economic, social and political developments,” and
  3. “Economic, social, and political changes in the world have stimulated new theoretical development” (Marsh 2002, 156).

th the works of Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas have challenged classical Marxism’s economism Gramsci, in particular, has emphasised the role of political or hegemonic struggle, the importance of ideology and the significance of agents, such as parties, workers’ councils, and intellectuals in overthrowing capitalism (Marsh 2002). Emphasizing on manufactured consent, and thus the hegemonic domination, as the basis of capitalist rule,” Gramsci believed that “overthrowing the capitalist state depends on a successful hegemonic struggle” (Taylor 1995, 250).

Critiquing classical Marxism’s economism, Poulantzas, on the other hand, theorized the relative autonomy of the state (Marsh 2002, 156). His argument is “that if the capitalist state was to function successfully as a class state, acting in the long-term interests of the bourgeoisie, then it must retain a degree of autonomy from the dominant class” (Taylor 1995, 255).

If there is one critique of classical Marxism that significantly contributed to its “fall” is its failure to offer a convincing explanation of economic, social, and political developments. To quote Marsh (2002, 157):

Empirical analysis indicated that economic relations of production did not determine culture and ideology or the form and actions of the state. So, for example, developed capitalist countries at similar stages of economic development and with comparable relations of production had different, more or less democratic or authoritarian, state forms. Similarly, any examination of the politics of capitalist states showed that policy decisions did not always and clearly forward the interests of the owners and controllers of capital. States clearly had autonomy, even though such autonomy was constrained.

Developments in the economic sphere brought about by the processes globalization and the internationalization of capitalism as well as in the social sphere, particularly, the growth of the public sector, the rise of white-collar employment and the increase in the female labor force have all had put into question classical Marxism’s economism and view of the state. In the political sphere, the collapse and demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) in 1991 has undermined classical Marxism’s commitment to communism, or at least to socialism, a social order that should be established after the overthrow of capitalism (Marsh 2002, 157-158).

In spite of its limitations, Marxism remains relevant. Marsh (2002, 171) identifies three main reasons why.

  1. Capitalism still contains significant contradictions. In this way, it claims to be a progressive force at a time when conditions in many parts of the world are getting worse, in large part because of the activities of TNCs and international organizations .. .
  2. Capitalism is exploitative as Marx emphasized a century and a half ago
  3. Nationally and internationally, societies are characterized by massive inequalities. 

Developments across the globe including the rise of neoliberal discourse and the increasing internationalization of capital, investment, trade, and labor have produced abundant evidence that unfettered capitalism causes more problems than it solves. For instance, the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the giant hedge fund, the Long Term Capital Management Fund (LTCMF) are material evidence of the contradictions within contemporary capitalism. Moreover, the credibility of international financial institutions like the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the whole dominant neoliberal discourse is under attack as well (Marsh 2002). As Kaletsky (1998) puts it:

All over the world extreme free market ideology is now in retreat and is likely to retreat much further in the years ahead. The reason is obvious. Even though global capitalism will recover from the present crisis, the ideological claim that markets work best when left to their own devices has been exposed as a myth (Marsh 2002, 165).

The excesses of global capitalism and the rise of anti-globalization movements provide further evidence of the contradictions of contemporary capitalism (Marsh 2002). With the dominance of neoliberalism, today’s world is seen as a global village characterized by exploitation and massive inequalities” (Klein 2001, xvii in Marsh 2002, 166). Klein (2001) gives a vivid description of such a village.

This is a village where some multinationals, far from leveling the global playing field with jobs and technology for all, are in the process of mining the planet’s poorest backcountry for unimaginable profits. This is the village where Bill Gates lives, amassing a fortune of $55 billion while a third of his workforce is classified as temporary workers, and where competitors are either incorporated into the Microsoft monolith or made obsolete by the latest feat in software bundling (Klein 2001, xvii in Marsh 2002, 166). 

Feminist Theory

Unlike the other dominant approaches in the social sciences, feminism did not evolve out of any of the sub-fields in the discipline of the social sciences. According to Randall (2002, 109), feminism “originated outside academia as the ideology of a critical and disruptive social movement. As such its absorption into social, let alone political, science has been partial and selective and there remains quite a gulf between feminism out there’ and feminist political science.”

The emergence of radical feminism and the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s ushered in a new political perspective within feminism. This new political perspective “was grounded in women’s experience of the limitations of ‘equal rights’, of their marginalization in Left-wing and radical male-dominated movements and above all in the advances of knowledge and understanding made by women over the decades since access to education had been opened up” (Chapman 1995, 1994-95).

The women’s liberation movement was a huge liberation project. Its ultimate goal:

was to expose the whole gender-based system of sexism and patriarchal power, expressed in social, economic, and political structures; in language and cultural images of men and women; in the alienation of women from their bodies, the repression of their sexuality and male control of women’s reproduction; and in male violence against women (Chapman 1995, 98-99)

Both as a movement and a body of ideas, feminism aimed to enhance women’s status and power. Feminism called into question power relations within the society, in general, and between men and women, in particular, that were conventionally accepted and defended as ‘natural’ (Randall 2002).

Nonetheless, while questioning the unequal and oppressive power relations between men and women is common among feminists, scholars and activists alike, there is no single, coherent agenda within feminism. The lack of a singular agenda is reflected in the pluralism and diversity of perspectives within the feminist perspective. Feminists, according to Randall (2002, 110) “differed in the reasons they advanced for existing inequalities, in the terms in which they framed their objectives, and the strategies they favored for realizing them.”

With the resurgence of feminism from the late 1960s, three strands of feminism were predominant, namely, liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, and radical feminism. Liberal feminism followed existing liberal thought and its logic of individual rationality, the public-private distinction, and the reformability of institutions (Randall 2002). Marxist feminism and radical feminism would critique liberal feminism “as too limited and too accepting of the ‘system’ with its inherent structural inequalities and so, by implication, as elitist” (Randall 2002, 110).

Marxist feminism built on the tenets of Marxism particularly on the critique of how women’s oppression was functional and necessary to the development of capitalism. Radical feminism pushed the limits of the feminist agenda by identifying the sex war as the most basic political struggle and pointing to the ‘private’ sphere as the terrain where women’s oppression was founded. It exposed male power or patriarchy in the contexts of rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse, and attacked pornography (Randall 2002, 110-111).

Since there are many variants of feminism, it would follow that there is no one form of feminist theory. Chafetz (1997, 97) describes the term “feminist theory” as referring “to a myriad kinds of works, produced by movement activists and scholars in a variety of disciplines; these are not mutually exclusive and include:

(a) normative discussions of how societies and relationships ought to be restructured, their current inequities, and strategies to achieve equity; (b) critiques of androcentric classical theories, concepts, epistemologies, and assumptions; (c) epistemological discussions of what constitute appropriate forms, subject matters, and techniques of theorizing from a feminist perspective; and (d) explanatory theories of the relationship between gender and various social, cultural, economic, psychological, and political structures and processes (Chapfetz 1991, 97-98).

The emergence of feminist theory in the social sciences was stimulated by and has evolved simultaneously with the contemporary feminist movement. As in other subfields within the discipline of social sciences, feminist scholarship in political science grew out of its “critiques of the ways in which the philosophical canon of political theory and the empirical canon of behavioral political science excluded women and women’s activity from their subject matter, often rendered women invisible, and employed stereotypical assumptions about women’s apolitical “nature” and their behavior (Carroll and Zerilli 1993).

Influenced by the developments in feminism as a movement and a body of ideas, feminist political scientists sought to apply insights derived from feminism in their own analysis. Randall (2002) described the process in the following manner.

The first stage was mounting a critique of male political science for its virtual exclusion of women as political actors (Bourque and Grossholtz 1974; Iglitzin 1974). There was a parallel move by feminist political theorists to expose the misogynist tendencies of traditional political thought (Brenan and Pateman 1979; Clarke and Lange 1979).

Closely related to this enterprise was a second stage which is sometimes rather dismissively referred to as ‘adding women in’, and entailed a much more systematic investigation into the extent of women’s underrepresentation and its institutional and noninstitutional causes.

… this very process of bringing women in has inevitably led feminist political scientists to a third ‘stage’ in which they raise more fundamental questions about their discipline: about limitations of the characteristic methodologies employed in political science, about the way that politics is conceptualized; and about the `gendered’ character of political institutions and processes (Randall 2001 113-114).

The impact of feminism in political science was significant. Feminism has produced a re-examination of what politics is and what ‘the political’ means in the discipline. In other words, feminism has made its impact on the important questions of the scope of politics and the boundaries of political science as a discipline. Feminist political scientists have not only criticized their discipline’s traditional concentration on mainstream political institutions but have also argued for the expansion of their discipline’s conception of the political.

For instance, feminist scholars in political science have expanded the scope of the discipline by expanding the range of subject matter that is considered appropriate for political analysis. Influenced by the radical feminism’s critique of the public-private dichotomy as an ideological device through which to legitimize the continuing exclusion and oppression of women, feminist political scientists included in their scholarship efforts to explore and demonstrate the close interdependence of public and private spheres. Taking the form of policy studies, feminists within the discipline of political science began to bring ‘private’ issues like domestic violence, abortion, or childcare on to the pubic policy agenda (Randall 2002, 119-120).

Feminist scholars in the discipline of political science have also integrated a gendered analysis of political institutions or the ‘state’ (Randall 2002). In Acker’s words, institutions are ‘gendered’ when

advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine. Gender is not an addition to ongoing processes, conceived as gender neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of those processes (Acker 1990:146 in Randall 2002, 125).