Rethinking class: a cultural take on the material?
More recent criticisms of materialist based approaches to class have drawn on elements associated with the cultural turn. Discursive approaches have been used to try to go beyond the limitations of Marxism and attend to how class is thought of and talked about. Materialism and discursivity are not inevitably opposed, indeed the ideological aspects of class formation have always been considered. Within feminist attempts to think about women’s class position, material conditions tell only part of the story. The concept of ideology was previously used to complete the picture, but this often meant using psychoanalytic approaches that did not sit well with the anti-essentialist approaches feminists favoured toward gender (Rahman and Witz, 2003).A post-structuralist focus on discourse promised a perhaps more social and yet less deterministic way to consider gender and its relationship to class.
However, Barrett (1992) has suggested that to introduce a notion of discourse is to challenge materialism. She claims that the concept of discursivity involves a critique of materialism in its assumption that things are produced by discourse. However, this does not preclude a discussion of the materiality of the things thus discursively constructed (see Rahman and Witz, 2003). Materiality, as compared to ‘the material’, may be ‘stretched’ as a concept in order to understand some socially constructed objects such as bodies as involving a kind of non-linguistic substance. However, I would argue that a more traditional usage of the term ‘material’ can be applied in understanding other social phenomena. Class, for example, can be seen as a product of both material conditions and discursive formations.