Contribution To The Critique Of Political Economy

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Word Count

3000 words




6 Days

Assignment Criteria

Assessment Details: students are urged to read this section very carefully

The assessments comprises two pieces of written work on different topics. It is expected that the minor paper and the major research paper will concern different topics and sociologists, and will not repeat the work of another piece of work for this subject, or any other.  If students are unsure that their plans comply with this requirement they are strongly advised to consult Dr Rodney Fopp as a matter of urgency.  

As this is a sociological theory course, it is expected that all essays will come from the discipline of Sociology and demonstrate reading from the primary sources.  This is a clearly stated expectation and students will be rewarded for demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of the primary literature, that is, the actual work of sociologists.  This means essays on a particular theorist (say Weber) should reference work by Weber (and not Weber's work via secondary literature).  

The 1000 word minor assignment is intended to assess your ability to condense and distil a body of work.  This will require very careful planning, organising and structuring of your essay around themes and your clearly stated argument.  Just because it is only a 1000 words does NOT mean that the question should be ignored and you have licence to write on the topic generally.  In fact, because it is only 1000 words it will need to be carefully researched, planned, written and answered 'directly', 'head-on' and explicitly.

ESSAY 1  (1000 words)

The aim of this assignment is: to undertake research and formulate an argument, during which students demonstrate  their research skills, the extent of reading and understanding, and their  ability to condense a large body of literature in a scholarly manner for an essay of 1000 words.  Using the primary sources in the weekly readings form week 3 as the basis of your essay, choose 1 question only.

  • What part of the work of a theorist studied in the course really interests you (for example, Marx on class, dialectical materialism, religion, superstructure/structure)?  Why?  Use primary sources and the debates in the academic literature to defend your interest. 

Please note: all aspects and all parts or sections of questions should be answered.

This essay is expected to be very well researched.  Anything less than 10 references from a variety of sources (journal articles, books, on-line material) would be unlikely to meet this requirement.  As students are encouraged to share resources for this assignment this expectation should be easily realised.  

It is expected that students undertake the research always on the lookout for the debates in the areas they have chosen.  It is also expected that this essay will reveal the students engagement with the many sides of a topic which constitute a debate.  In this way, it will be possible to distil large debates into the required word limit.  Detailed referencing is recommended, including citing similar positions in one Harvard-type bracket, as a means of demonstrating the extent of reading, understanding and the ability to condense a large body of literature into a 1000 words.

Students should attempt to adopt a critical analytical approach to research, and answering essay questions.  This can include the following. 

  • A statement of significance (that is, why is the Sociologist or topic is important).
  • A brief outline of the implications for social institutions.
  • An examination of the implications for so-called 'social problems'.
  • Identifying any unintended consequences.
  • A comparison with other Sociologists.
  • A brief discussion of any shortcomings in the argument.
  • A brief discussion of any positive contribution the author or issue makes to the Sociological understanding of the topic.
  • How a topic is related to one or more of the Sociological models

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Assignment Solution


The base and superstructure model postulated by Karl Marx in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is not just deeply interesting but its relevance reaches beyond the discipline of Sociology. The concept marks a shift in ideology from Hegelian philosophy.  Marx re-examines to state that, 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness' (1859). Consciousness among the working class was necessary for a self-awareness of their condition. Failing which, a 'false consciousness' would result in alienation. Commenting on the Hegelian view, Marx asserts, 'All alienation of man’s essence is, therefore, nothing but the alienation of self-consciousness' (1971, p.105). This causal model is of particular allure as it implies a sense of agency that men possess. 

Marx as a cultural phenomenon has influenced the understanding of cultural, political, economic and gender theories. Either in agreement or contention, as in Feminism, Marxism serves as a working theoretical model for various schools of thought. It is not just the traditional understanding of Marxism that is fascinating, but the evolution of the theory through various isms and its persistent relevance in the 21st century. 

At the time of several 'post-'s', Marxism as a social discourse has been reworked, emphasizing the innate limitations. At the advent of postmodernism, a pluralist approach began. Ben Agger explains Marx's insensitivity towards difference. He envisions, 'post-Marxism” as it, 'arises from a version of the postmodern theory that puts distance between its polyvocal narrativity and Marx's metanarratality.' (1998, p. 152)

Cultural Marxism

Contesting Marx's historical materialism model, Raymond Williams proposes the concept of dominant culture as a form of the superstructure. In his interpretation as Cultural Marxism, Williams urges the reader to consider 'superstructure' as related to a range of cultural practices. Thus implying that superstructure is ideological rather than a mere reproduction. (2005). 

Marxist Feminism

Hennessy, Rosemary, Ellen Wood, Chrys Ingraham and other Marxists Feminists dispute Marx's view that class is the only differential factor in social stratification. They insisted on the inclusion of gender as a category in the analysis of class oppression. Considering the superstructure to be hegemonic patriarchy, Marxists Feminists suggest that women constitute the base of the society and their work must receive equal recognition. Hennessay and Ingraham state that when 'feminists challenged Marxism’s limits and in the process expanded its explanatory power as a theoretical framework that might more adequately address the differential historical situation of women.' (1997, p. 4) Further, the base-superstructure model is a premise to argue that women are not separated from social superstructures such as religion, culture, and politics because of their anatomy, but based on economic discrimination. The sexual division of labor, therefore, becomes the primary concern for Marxist Feminists. The means of production are owned by men causing unequal economic power to women. To support this view, Hennessy and Ingraham explain that, 'as the gap widens between those who own and control the world’s wealth and those who do not, women’s labor continues to be a primary source of capital accumulation.' (1997, p. 2)

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