Research Culture Seminar Series - Rethinking Naturalisation


Guest speaker Wendy Bottero is Reader in Sociology at the University of Manchester.

Her research looks at the everyday social reproduction of inequality, examining how inequalities are wound through our personal ties and social connections.

Her recent book ‘A Sense of Inequality’ (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019) explores the question of subjective inequality, examining diverse set of empirical and theoretical work —on social attitudes and perceptions; symbolic legitimation and misrecognition; research on affect and struggles for recognition; social movements research; resistance studies; and interactionist and pragmatist approaches to everyday sense-making— to consider how troubling social situations come to be regarded as inequalities, and how inequalities come to be seen as susceptible to intervention and change.


A key theme in work on subjective inequality is the question of how inequalities are rendered more or less visible, not least because analysts have long identified a ‘problem’ with ordinary people’s understandings. People’s subjective grasp of inequalities has been identified as restricted or distorted in a range of work, and for many analysts this is explained by how the experience of unequal social arrangements itself distorts everyday understandings as part of the naturalisation of inequality.

But are people’s understandings really so restricted? 

People are more alert to wider structural and economic processes than some analysis suggests, but typically view these processes in terms of how they must be negotiated, seeing inequality as a ‘given’ feature of the environment to be managed in their daily lives.

For some analysts such a taken-for-granted practical experience of inequality ‘naturalises’ it as inevitable or self-evident. But despite its situated and practical character, people’s sense of inequality is ‘good enough’ for most people to want lower inequality, to fuel scepticism and dissent to legitimating ideologies, and to generate significant levels of recalcitrance, resistance and protest.

I critically interrogate the claim that ordinary people’s understandings of inequality are limited, paradoxical or mystified, and consider whether the restricted visions found in ordinary people’s sense of inequality are partly a reflection of the restricted vision of analysts. I argue that if we locate people’s knowledge, beliefs and values about inequality within a more situated understanding of their practical engagements and concerns then their sense of inequality seems less distorted or naturalised and starts to make better sense.