Reading Guide to: Murphy, R (1986 ) 'Weberian Closure Theory', in British Journal of Sociology, Volume XXXVII

Parkin's work has been much discussed and criticised, and some criticisms are summarised below. Briefly, Barbalet and Mackenzie have argued that the theory still needs some underlying (marxist) theory of exploitation, Giddens has stressed the lack of relations between different forms of exclusion, and Giddens and Murphy have identified an over-emphasis on voluntarism.

The approach is clearly based on Weber and how groups monopolise opportunities, regardless of official legitimations. Parkin identifies two types of closure (exclusion and usurpation), and sees processes of closure as generic. He thinks he has enlarged the marxist view of exploitation, and, since exclusion is always likely to lead to counter - usurpation, he is able to explain widespread forms of social conflict. Usurpation involves a more of a challenge to the social system, because it operates with a different concept of distributive justice, something more like functional importance rather than market scarcity. The overall pattern of stratification represents a mixture of the two strategies, and some intermediate groups are able to use both -- such as the semi professions, like teachers, and ethnic groups.

Stratification operates according to both collectivist and individualist criteria. The latter are much less efficient in transmitting advantages inter-generationally. As a result, social mobility becomes a means for protecting class position rather than reproducing class as such -- any social reproduction arises from the bourgeois family's capacity to adapt to rules set up for protective purposes. It is this capacity to adapt rather than the rules themselves which are responsible. The mixture between collectivist and individualistic criteria leads to contradictory capacities for social openness and closure. Closure is not the same as reproduction, though, as above. In the long run there may well be a tendency to substitute individualistic for collectivist criteria, although this is not a simple evolutionary progress, since there are still possibilities for exploitation.

Some objections to the theory are more easily dealt with:

(a) For some critics, the process of exclusion is too broadly applied to meet any distributive struggle, even in a perfect meritocracy, where there would still be individualist criteria to struggle over. The exclusion from particular areas and means is the really crucial bit at issue here -- thus, exclusion for from power is not really the same as exploitation for marxists [which, apart from anything else, helped them to defend state social societies as being in some kind of transitional phase]. The narrower versions of exploitation reimpose priorities on class struggle, however, and closure theorists can argue that what is necessary and real exclusion is itself socially determined and legitimated. Closure theory points to domination, which is an inherent possibility even where stratification is apparently necessary. It also points to social problems which are likely to arise from any form of exclusion. In this sense, the general approach is 'original and promising' (27).

(b) The theory cannot account for structure of positions, as it is interested only in the sorting of individuals. In this sense it needs a Marxian framework. However, this reduces closure theory to a concern for entry to positions and a concern for types of exclusion, such as collectivist and individualist, from those positions. However, the positions themselves consist of differential opportunities, and it is these opportunities that the rules of closure explain. Closure is a dynamic process which determines the positional picture as well. For example, private property in capitalism confers opportunities and this gives more power in a market. In state social societies, Communist Party membership did the same thing. The importance of skills and credentials again lead to differences in an occupational structure. In this sense, exclusion is a process out of which positions develop. Usurpation similarly structures opportunities and therefore modifies a positional structure. A current struggle for benefits, for example, 'is in fact a struggle for future resources and future power' (29). Usurpation can also escalate to political action to redraw the boundaries between positions.

The more serious problems are these:

(1) Usurpation and exclusion tend to be seen as opposites, but exclusion is implicit in usurpation. For example, where a racial minority organises to usurp the dominant group and then excludes them. A trade union closed shop really excludes any replacements for members. [Note 24, page 40 also says that exclusion is possible between equals, and is not always downward in its effects. Note 25 adds that Parkin's attempts to define the differences between usurpation and exclusion in terms of direction still offers problems -- the 'downward' direction is not clearly defined, and exclusion can operate both sideways and upwards]. Usurpation is therefore best seen as a subtype of exclusion, as in the dual closure processes Parkin describes (such as in 'supplementary closure', when members of the working classes organise against the bourgeois, and then further exclude black people). Such cases indicates that it can be part of a process of fighting back against top dogs to exploit those even lower. The real differences, according to Murphy, lie in that real usurpation always involves this process of squeezing others in order to fight back, while dual closure proper doesn't do this. Usurpation and dual closure are therefore alternative reactions to exclusion -- but they are forms of exclusion in their own right too.

(2) The withdrawal of services is not really an alternative criterion designed to challenge distributive justice politically. In fact it is the capitalist mode of struggle par excellence, seen in the withdrawal of capital and the very effective withdrawal of professional skills too. The real issue turns on the existence of state-backed laws to make threats effective for capital and professionals, by creating scarcity: there are no no such laws to protect trade union picketing, for example. It will be a mistake to think that the withdrawal of services by the poor would bring about some alternative system of distributive justice.

(3) There is no dominant class in state social societies. Parkin is ambiguous about the role of the Party. He has difficulties here because he defines the concept of property so broadly, hoping to be able to span capitalist and socialist societies. His earlier work was well aware, for example, the notions such as 'industrial society' glossed rather dangerously the differences between market and command societies. It will have been better for him to limit the concept of property to mean legal private property, and try to use different exclusion rules in state socialism, where, say, the Communist Party is seen as an independent variable. We would then be left with two types of society, without the need to refer to a dubious notion such as 'transition'. [Parkin can also be accused of conflating economic capital and educational capital in the form of credentials -- again, these were clearly separated in the earlier work].

(4) The concept of politics is also too broad and general, leading to problems in identifying clear alternative forms. This tends to favour the idea of social democratic reform against both marxism and functionalism. Class conflict becomes unmanageable matter about distribution. Parkin seems to prefer individualistic criteria to collectivist ones, and to operate with a choice of exclusions rather than any attempt to abolish them altogether.

In conclusion, Parkin was right to expand and generalise away from marxism, and when the real problems are corrected, the approach becomes a very powerful one, even capable of analysing the sad state of 'marxist' societies.