Getting started in critiques of institutional power structures

But I went to your institutional learning facilities!

But I went to your institutional learning facilities.

There’s a fairly common chain of events that repeats itself in discussions involving social justice issues: a person from a privileged group is called out for something he said or did by someone who is subject to the structural violence created by (and that creates) that privilege. The conversation ends up highlighting the morally problematic nature of what was said or done, and the privileged person realizes—at least, a bit—that a faux pas was made. In order to right the wrong, the person then asks about how to learn more about the institution in question.

While learning more about one’s privilege and how it impacts other people is a good thing, there is something worrisome about this sort of exchange.1 In essence, this kind of response puts the disadvantaged in a position of having to educate the advantaged (usually for free, no less). At best, this response reenacts the exploitation of the very institutional structures in question; at its worst, it is the dehumanizing impulse to treat someone as a “fact kiosk” rather than, say, a person whose time is valuable and their own to do with as they wish.2

Of course, without learning how this stuff works, there simply isn’t going to be any progress in terms of undermining these morally problematic structures. What is a person who knows that there’s something going on here (but don’t know what it is) to do? How do you even begin to find answers? I mean, if only someone would invent a method for discovering resources online or some sort of decent online encyclopedia. Until such time, it would seem that we’re in a dilly of a pickle.

To rectify this situation, I’m creating a resource to allow people to get started in understanding how an institutional analysis of power works. So, if you’re confronted by your privilege on a particular subject and want to know more, you can start by apologizing to whomever had to point out what you did, reading these texts, and then undermining morally problematic institutions.3

What follows in this post isn’t the definitive guide to getting an understanding of how institutional analyses of power work. It is, instead, a guide—one that is modeled on my own (quite idiosyncratic) intellectual history. There are other ways into the material here, but this one is mine. As a result, this list reflects my interests both in terms of method (i.e., tending toward philosophical analysis), content (i.e., tending toward gender and race), and focus (i.e., the American experience). In future posts, I will go through and explain more simply and thoroughly some of the concepts and arguments discussed in these works. In the interim, you might want to also look at my syllabus for my power course, which covers some of this ground as well as related topics (e.g., disabilities and fat studies).

Some optional background reading

Every text is situated in a broader discourse, so I can’t give you the definitive stepping off point for this material—there is no “In the Beginning” to be had here. Nonetheless, there are two major figures lurking in the background of the materials that follow, and so it might be useful, over time, to have an understanding of them. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work, especially in On the Genealogy of Morals, informs Foucault’s work in terms of both method and content. The second is Karl Marx, whose work informs the critiques made by Foucault, Du Bois, Fanon, Davis, and hooks.

Where I start

Given my scholarly interests in these issues, I tend to think that a great theoretical place to start is with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. D&P is a genealogy4 of the prison, which Foucault dates to the 19th Century and attributes to a confluence of factors: (i) the political riskiness to the sovereign of violent and public punishment; (ii) the origins of contractarian views of society; (iii) the rise of the human sciences; and (iv) the development of successful training methods that were shared across institutions (e.g., schools, militaries, factories, and prisons). What explains the success of the last two elements is that they are mutually reinforcing and they share a conception of humanity that treats persons as raw materials for any sort of position within an institution. This analysis is immensely powerful for thinking about other, less formal institutions.

Thinking about gender (a first go)

I find it helpful to begin understanding the institutional analysis of power by looking at gender. In particular, the picture of embodiment—that is, how the body is shaped by norms—that has been developed by gender theorists provides us with a nice bridge between the Foucauldian theoretical picture and concrete experience. If you’d prefer to start with race, that’s fine too.


In my classes, I tend to use two authors to highlight the specifically institutional nature of gender:

  • Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality, chapters 1 (“Oppression”) and 2 (“Sexism”)
  • Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination, chapter 5 (“Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization Power of Patriarchal Power”)

Naturally, men are gendered as well. I tend to use two texts to highlight the ways in which men are gendered:

  • William Pollack, Real Boys, Chapter 2 (“Stories of shame and the haunting trauma of separation: how we can connect with boys and change the ‘boy code’ “)
  • Califia, “Manliness”

Thinking about gender in a more complicated fashion

The way of thinking about gender embodied in these texts has significant limitations. The primary limitation is that these texts still treat people of privileged race, class, sexuality, etc. status as a “universal subject”—the “human.” To put the point another way: the accounts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accounts of the norms full stop, but rather an account of gender norms given a particular socio-cultural context. Of course, nobody merely has a gender—each of us has a gender presentation that is also raced, classed, sex-identified, and the like. In the next section, I’ll take up the issue of race and intersectionality; here, I’d like to highlight the trouble with heterosexism.

Queer critiques of feminism

There are many texts that problematize the development of feminism in 20th century America. As we’ll see in the next section, second wave feminism reproduced racist (and classist) institutions; here, we’ll examine how second wave feminism reproduced heterosexism. These critiques arise from the conception of “woman” that is the subject of feminism.

The critique of second wave feminism’s heterosexism arises from the question of whether lesbians are women (to put the point a bit too bluntly). If, after all, feminism is supposed to advance the interests of “women,” then the failure of feminism to account for lesbian experience seems to exclude lesbians from womanhood. Adrienne Rich critiques the suppression and erasure of lesbianism from second wave feminism’s account of womanhood, and Judith Butler expands on this insight to undercut the theoretical framework that understands (or presupposes) a natural relation between sex, gender, and desire: that one’s sex is biologically determined, which in turn determines one gender, and, thereby, one’s desires. Be forewarned that Rich’s work is, in my students’ words, “really, really passionate,” and Butler’s work is notoriously difficult to parse.

  • Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience”
  • Butler, Gender Trouble
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Epistemology of the Closet”

On Race

Another form of embodiment that is heavily normative and the site of structural violence is race. And, while gender and sexuality are complicated things, race is even more complex to sort out. I’ve separated out some issues, below, in order to highlight the different ways into the subject matter.

NB: I tend to be interested in African American experiences, but it is a mistake to treat the “Black/White continuum” conception of race that informs so much of American racial discourse as exhaustive or paradigmatic of all racial issues. Not only are there intersectionality issues (see more, below) within that continuum, but the experiences of Latin@\Chican@, indigenous people of the Americas, Asian Americans, and native Hawaiians and Alaskans are all due attention and understanding—and not merely in relation to whiteness.

Race and feminism

One way into the discussion on race is via a discussion that parallels the queer critique of second wave feminism. Here, there are people who note that various forms of feminism have construed the subject of feminism—women—as being primarily white (and perhaps middle class) women.

Race outside of African American experiences

Although this begins to take me beyond the domain of my scholarly expertise, there are three authors that I will mention by way of expanding the discussion beyond the “Black/White Continuum”; each of these authors is also interested in questions of gender.

  • Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self
  • Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
  • Cherríe Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010
Understanding race and racism

Another way to start thinking about racism is more free-standing from questions about feminism and representation. The texts, below, highlight important distinctions: Fanon offers an analysis of the impact of colonization on the colonized; Shelby shows that what is at stake in racism (and, by extension, institutional oppression more generally) is not the attitudes of individuals so much as institutions that give meaning to our actions; Sally Haslanger analyzes the differences between gender and race as categories for social organization; and Kelly and Roedder highlight how deeply institutionalized racism can infect our psychologies.

Racism and America

Given my interests in American philosophy and African American culture, I think that some of the most engaging work covers questions about what America represents and how it represents itself. Although the rhetoric around the founding of the United States was one of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the reality experienced by people from outside a relatively narrow group of wealthy white men is quite different indeed. This is not merely a historical artifact of chattel slavery (or the genocidal policies inflicted on Native Americans), but rather an ongoing phenomenon that implicitly codes “American” as “white.” Du Bois is helpful in framing this issue (and Allen and Schaefer are helpful in explaining and expanding on Du Bois’s account of “double consciousness”), and the Lorde/Baldwin conversation offers a re-assessment of the issue at mid-century. Angela Davis’s work on prison abolition examines the gap between America’s conception of its criminal justice system and its realities, with the former so idealized that it masks the continuities between forms of criminalizing African Americans.

  1. I have in mind here encounters between strangers or acquaintances (especially online) rather than those between friends. 
  2. I’ve lifted the vocabulary of “fact kiosk” from Trudy at Gradient Lair. If you visit her site, please be well-mannered and remember that just reading about racism and sexism doesn’t make you a good person. 
  3. Obviously, no one blog post is going to cover everything, so what is here is just the start—to get you up and running, as it were. 
  4. Foucault, like Nietzsche, offers a genealogy of various social institutions. In contrast to what we might call a “history,” which aims at offering a retrospective, coherent account of how things came to be, a genealogy aims at reminding us that (many of) the institutions that we have today arose in a rather different socio-historical context, and so when we look at how these institutions came about, we should attend to the accidents that gave rise to those institutions—rather than the current significance of the institutions—in understanding how the institutions came to be.