Notes on: Burton, S. (2015) The Monstrous ''White theory boy'': Symbolic Capital, Pedagogy and the Politics of Knowledge Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 14 <>
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3746

Dave Harris

[Much-needed discussion of how hegemonic White  theory is actually taught by real 'White  theory boys' instead of caricatures. Raises implications for epistemic racism and decolonisation]

'White  theory boy' is hegemonic perpetuating White ness and patriarchy in academia. For example  De  Benedicts was shocked to see a majority White  male panel at a conference which was ostensibly about feminism, all citing Anglo phone male cultural theorists. White  European men also dominated contemporary sociology, buttressed by citation practice and 'disciplinary origin stories', foundational epistemologies and 'their inculcation through pedagogical strategies' (2).

We can grasp this better through a 'textured, intersectional feminist analysis' however. Actual White men who do theory 'rarely hold the sort of monolithic power we might first assume' and there is a more 'critical and finely grained account the relationship between power, knowledge and social status'. The 'White theory boy' has been demonised and privileged by a number of practices, and thus monstered, but we can contrast this by 'ethnographic observations on material from engagement' with actual 'White theory boys'. We then discover that it's really about 'being able to demonstrate and perform types of symbolic capital'.

She has experienced the problem herself by relying a lot in her work on Bourdieu, a classic dead White man. It is impossible to avoid such people, despite frustration. They are necessary, even though they have become 'a byword for hegemonic epithets'(3), an easy shorthand which masks 'more subtle imaginations of domination and power'. It is these forms of power which we need to analyse, and which allow only some to perform the role of 'White theory boy'.

There are advantages in performing this role, and there are links with the empire and imperialism, Eurocentrism, racial segregation, patriarchy [references for each], which has raised other voices. Performing the role of 'White theory boy' demonstrates allegiance to these identities. It has become 'ingrained into the fabric of sociology', naturalised, seen in 'citation practice and canonicity'.. However the figure also provides intellectual engagement, and is also an aid to exposing domination.

The common legend is that social theory is populated by dead White men, and that this confers intellectual legitimacy, seen in canonicity [references], as in the holy Trinity, and the presentation in contemporary textbooks founding fathers. Non-European scholarship is excluded or even erased. Other qualities are necessary to enter the canon, according to Outhwaite — being a general theorist, specialising in class, gender or ethnicity, dealing with broad narratives. However there are crossovers here, and Burton suggests that there is a slide between these general narratives and an avoidance of social structures and issues of identity that help us understand power relations best, and elision with the 'hegemonic… Realistically speaking, the "general" is a heterosexual middle-class White Anglophone man'. The tradition is also silent about itself, as Bourdieu notes. White men are universal and invisible. Postcolonial scholars point to the lack of African sociology, and explain this as a lack of economic forces in African universities and in Africa, which got detached from 'post-Second World War epistemic communities like the International Sociological Association'. Further marginalisation might have taken place with the abandonment of 'traditional (and dominant) modes of studying sociology' (4). There is also a kind of ghettoisation, where Black sociology has been seen as primarily about race and knowledge production [ Bhambra].

Citation practice is a 'reproductive technology' which preserves the 'dominant symbolic' and clearly links to pedagogy via reading lists. It has been raised by campaigns such as '"Why is My Curriculum White ?". If anything departs from the canonical, it tends to be marginalised.

Citations both reproduce bodies and voices and demonstrate allegiance and credentials [we might need Merton here on gift giving]. It reproduces dominant social groups, commitment to certain bodies and traditions, which are naturalised, and really 'the result of quiet processes of orthodoxy… Supporting the dominant intellectual tradition' (5). Sociologists commonly align themselves with and identify with traditions, often with names of dead White men and this is credentialist, and we can borrow some of their power.

She carried out a small empirical study of social theory courses, 39 departments who submitted to the 2008 RAE panel, concentrating especially on race, ethnicity and gender and speaking to those 'White theory boys' who taught social theory, focusing especially on three institutions, one an ancient Scottish university, another a 'multi-ethnic "plateglass" university based in central London' with high international intake, and the third a '19th-century "redbrick" and a largely White working class city in the north of England, but also in the Russell group, with a high intake from private education institutions'. All the academics were 'White , multilingual, European men' [it seems some of them were non-English].

She looked at authors on essential reading lists. In the first HEI there is a general course moving from classical to contemporary theory and of the 30 authors, 17 were White men and 10 White women, one male POC two female POC, in the second 37 White men six White women and no POC, and another course 29 White men eight White women and one female, in the third institution on the general social theory module 31 White men five White women one male POC three female POC. The focus tended to be individual thinkers like Marx, Durkheim and Weber, Bourdieu, Habermas and Mead, all White men with one exception, usually classic, with women and POC more homogenised. All stressed the need to teach the classic triumvirate and male thinkers who had shaped the body of thought.

Nevertheless, the 'White theory boys' were aware of institutional sexism and racism and its replication via the canon, but 'felt that students would be at a distinct disadvantage were they not to learn about these dominant men' (6), and not so disadvantaged if they did not focus on the epistemologies of women and other marginalised theorists. 'This demonstrates the power of hegemonic White , male, Western theory'. They did contain brief periods of study of feminism or global/postcolonial sociology, but the discussion was framed in terms of 'solely to talk about being non-hegemonic… Theorising difference or diversity', preserving relations of norm and other. This could be seen as progressive but 'simultaneously continues to set the non-hegemonic apart as alien'.

However, the 'White theory boy' is a two-dimensional figure and there are multitudes of problems of inequality. It is too easily identified as a central figure by a number of commentaries. It summarises the problem and personifies it, but it helps us talk about the problem without targeting anybody specific. However, this figure has turned into an unhelpful 'monster' covering over nuance. (7)

The monster in psychoanalysis and elsewhere is usually seen as a metaphor for the beastliness of humanity, although they also marked the boundary between human and nonhuman. They can be venerated. In feminist discourse the 'White theory boy' becomes a classic monster, both the relic of the past and as a spokesman for the future of cultural studies [in the case of De Benedictis earlier], and her 'disgust at the scene pulls in notions of atavism'. It echoes a darker time before feminism, CRT and so on, where '"not to cite White men is not to exist"' [citing Ahmed this time]. However, this can divert attention from canonical and mainstream social theory itself.

Monstering is also othering, a form of abjection, targeting particular figures to express anger at inequalities, mocking people. It might mock problems of hegemony and 'classism, sexism and racism' (8), but it does miss 'a whole range of intersectional thought and scholarship [and]… Breeds intellectual myopia'

Whiteness and maleness are understood as 'monolithic categories', a reverse of the misunderstanding of femaleness and being a POC, entirely negative. Instead it should be seen as a role to be performed, with some sympathy. Hegemonic identities 'can be instances of performance' showing capital at work, not consonant always with the 'lived experience of those who potentially fit into this figure'. She discovered this discussing canons, selfhood, social identifications, teaching, power and privilege' with actual 'White theory boys'.

One theme was the need for a safe space to wield the power of being White and a man, as a performance This requires cultural capital, to manage some of the tensions like having been reasonably privileged as an academic, and managing 'class, geographical location and capacity for cultural interactions… Dexterity with language… A wide range of academic networks among more senior scholars: education at elite institutions', managing jobs at different institutions, publishing, international speaking engagements, maintaining status in academia. One 'White theory boy' talked about how low stocks of cultural capital in childhood produced problems in his ability to have certain forms of work taken seriously, for example because it relied on translated rather than original French works. However he did acknowledge his privilege as fitting into 'the expected notion of the type of person who makes theoretical interventions [!] And that he is able to draw on typical objective understandings of Whiteness and maleness in order to move with ease through the discipline' Burton describes this as 'a form of "passing"', not full becoming. All the 'White theory boys' she talked to 'did not feel the most comfortable stable identities', and all talked about the difficulties in not speaking their native language, 'the emotional labour of writing', imposter syndrome when performing the role of theorist, 'never being quite sure if your accent is acceptable' they recognise they were fitting into privileged categories but that there was strong contestation of these. They felt no allegiance to the figure of 'White theory boy' and expressed some frustration and discontent 'with the dominant modes of canon building and knowledge making in social theory.

There was a strong intersection with 'notions of class, especially working class identities' (9). Whiteness can also be a form of passing given the 'multiplicity of White ethnicities', and this can be seen in canonical figures such as Bourdieu, Jewish people like Marx and Durkheim, those who showed physical or mental disability and had mental breakdowns like Weber or Althusser, which affected their work and also the public perceptions of them. This might even indicate 'common or shared grounds between the hegemonic and the dominated'.

Social theory canons and the pedagogical strategy are based on 'ingrained institutional and epistemological racism and sexism' through 'selections of particular versions of knowledge'. We need to name it to tackle it, but we have to be careful about 'what — and who — is at the source of the trouble' and avoid simple categories of Whiteness and maleness. This will overlook hegemonic power. We need a more intersectional analysis to look at gender, class, disability, linguistic, [sic] emotion, location, history and religion which are at the core of social identities and domination'. Being White and male is advantageous and can be used to perform power, but we have to be careful not to assume unfettered and easy access to the dominant symbolic. The 'White theory boy' and the dead White man has become a monster, but it is too homogeneous and simplifies the problem. In fact, 'few 'White theory boys' feel  an easy privilege' they are capable of reflexive attempts to account for their advantage and they sometimes fail at it, and this opens a space for more discussion rather than straightforward opposition. We should understand that 'White theory boy' has engaged in 'a performance or maquerade' and this can help us better understand and critique 'the constructs of hegemony'. We should see individuals performing this role as navigating difficult situations, and only 'showing external allegiance to dominant notions and identifications'.