(2018) Vertical and horizontal relations: What is ‘society’ about?

Monday 28 May 2018, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

A regular activity of an academic is to read scientific papers. In social sciences, ‘scientific’ does not necessarily mean that a paper is based on a detailed empirical research. Very often, many social scientists intend to offer general overviews about a topic by collecting various pieces of others’ research and providing comprehensive interpretations. This is what many identify as ‘theory’. In natural sciences this is better-known as ‘meta-studies’ although these are still meant to summarise the accumulated empirical evidence about a certain topic. In a less sophisticated vein, social theory may also appear merely as ‘literature review’. Additionally, social scientists are eager to discuss abstract concepts with little grounding in tangible reality, at least according to many outsiders. When these abstract discussions are focused on ideological values and epistemological views of how social science is possible, we could also designate them as ‘meta-theory’. The main rationale behind them is that, more often than not, our political and epistemological mind-sets permeate every single taken-for-granted assumption of empirical writings.

I value all this intellectual production and won’t stop learning from it. (And just to warn the reader, the present entry deals with such theoretical concerns.) Nonetheless, I would love to come across novel and original contributions more frequently instead of drinking the same wine in new bottles. In addition, many new fashionable concepts are fancy enough to make us believe there is wine though we only taste plain water –which is probably healthier, though less glamorous.

An old problem that appears once and again in many papers is the confusion between ‘inequalities’ and ‘differences’, which I reformulate here as the problem of conflating ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ relations. This relates to another crucial distinction between ‘matter’ and ‘information’ which would take me too long for the purposes of this article to clarify (see, for example, Wilden 1987 for an adequate discussion). More importantly, two different notions of the ‘social’ might be invoked in case we take that problem seriously. Let’s see how this issue might be articulated.

I would like to first disclose what triggered this reflection. A reputed sociologist came to my university and gave a talk based on a recently published article: Lamont, M. (2018) “Addressing Recognition Gaps: Destigmatization and the Reduction of Inequality”, American Sociological Review 83(3), 419-444. It is a piece worth reading, with a valuable critical stance -with the declared aim of using sociology to help marginalised groups fight stigmas, achieve respect, worth and empowerment. Growing inequalities under neoliberal regimes are even mentioned as significant contexts of her analysis. However, both the diagnosis of the roots of stigmatisation and the proposed solutions to neutralise it are dependent on a theoretical framework that privileges horizontal ‘differences’ over vertical ‘inequalities’. The key concept of that framework is ’cultural membership’: “the status of individuals who are collectively defined as valued members of a community” (p. 423).

The article presumes that socio-cultural integration is a more significant context to assess stigmas than conflicts in the economic and political spheres. In short, she argues that people are socially integrated when they are recognised, visible and respected. Otherwise, they are excluded, marginalised and stigmatised. Both diagnosis and solutions are viewed from the perspective of cultural frames and narratives, which are considered more important than (or as important as) the material conditions of living. Although it is positive to depart from the assumption that there are vertical relations of domination within the cultural realm (between the respected and stigmatised groups), the emphasis on social integration focuses on the differences among human beings (either as individuals or as members of social groups), with specific stigmatising features proper to each. Should destigmatisation succeeded, the analysis suggests that marginalised groups would find ways to become part of the mainstream society (see, for example, the way same sex marriage normalises queer sexuality). This analysis also indicates a difference between the centre of society (individuals and groups attached to mainstream-dominant values, the normal life) and a peripheral space (marginalised-stigmatised individuals and groups, whose experience in relation to the centre is one characterised by social exclusion and or described as deviant). In sum, she provides no analysis of vertical conflicts (characterised by social relations of domination) within the economic and political realms; and offers no clues about the intersection of key forms of oppression between class, gender and race. It is not my intention to review all the contents of Lamont’s article here, but just to use it as an excuse to further develop the problem of vertical and horizontal relations.

Previous debates on ‘recognition’ and ‘distribution’ (Fraser & Honneth 2003), and also on ‘intersectionalism’ and ‘social reproduction’ (Bhattacharya 2017) have dealt with this problem in different ways. They address questions such as: Are conflicts in the economic and political realms as important as the cultural ones? Is the emphasis on differences between social groups more enlightening than the analysis of the vertical relations of oppression in various economic, political and cultural spheres simultaneously? How are they intertwined, combined and articulated?

On the same week I read and listened to Lamont, I also enjoyed two investigative journalism articles that helped me to illustrate my concerns regarding intersectionality-in-a-predominantly-capitalist-society in relation to situations where immigrant women are exploited, subjugated and raped in the strawberry fields of Southern Spain (https://correctiv.org/en/blog/2018/...) and the predominance of capitalist forms of oppression in the access to affordable housing in New York City where real estate speculators violate, exploit loopholes and lobby to change the real estate and rental law (in addition to abusing and displacing tenants) in order to improve their profits (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive...). Again, I will not go into the details of these cases, they simply serve to demonstrate how journalistic narratives can address vertical relations in contrast to Lamont’s sociological paper.

In my view, social sciences study the oppression experienced by many social groups, and their resistance to the oppressors. Some sociologists are only devoted to study people’s ideas, behaviours and interactions, but to me this is a partial approach only legitimised by the value-free neutrality of the scientist. Conversely, critical social sciences place power relations of oppression and resistance (social conflict) at the core of the analysis. Power relations can be designated as ’type 1’ of vertical relations since they link those at the top with those at the bottom (in a simplified hierarchical model of only two opposed groups).

Vertical relations cause the organisation of society in distinct categories (groups, organisations, classes) whose boundaries are drawn according to various circumstances and patterns across historical time and place. In capitalist societies the major source of oppression is the exploitation of labour force by the owners of the means of production (including factories, service-provision, private property of land, and financial capital). This is the best example of a vertical relation: those at the top make profit by manipulating the needs of those at the bottom. Capitalists are experts in the appropriation of collective and natural goods. A similar verticality applies to political arrangements where only state authorities make decisions that the rest must comply with. The citizenry can suggest topics for deliberation when there are channels or chances for doing so, but even in liberal democracies their voices are rarely listened to. Vertical domination also occurs in cultural terms when a group is capable of spreading their views and convincing others of the superiority of their views and, in extension, the groups who represent them. Sociologists conventionally named these vertical relations (’type 1’) as inequalities of wealth, power and status. In particular, class, gender and ethnic relations are identified as the main axes of inequality. The more they persist and are reproduced over time, the more structural they become. However, despite this solid character, history also shows that some significant variations and changes occur.

The pyramid, although not perfectly accurate, may be regarded as the best visual representation of these powerful hierarchies that have organised social life since humans became ’human’ (see figure 1). The arrows pointing to the bottom indicate ’domination’ while the dotted arrows targeting the top level indicate ’resistance to domination’.

Figure 1. Power relations of oppression and resistance

Disagreements between social scientists have much to do with the fundamental role assigned to each sphere or context of oppression. Marxism, materialist and critical scholarship (Alford & Friedland 1985) has no doubts regarding the ultimate constraining power of the ‘economic pyramid’ at the top of society when capitalism became the dominant mode of production. The ‘political pyramid’ and, since its inception, the state, would occupy a second tier whereas the ‘cultural pyramid’ would be more constrained by the other two (see figure 2). The underlying assumptions are well-known: the articulation between the economic and political structures are the main focus of analysis; oppressions within the cultural sphere could not be understood without a direct linkage to the above structures. This results in a ’type 2’ of vertical relations in terms of contexts: capitalist social relations constrain, without fully determining, the rest of social relations; power relations in inferior levels can exert some influence to the above levels when the constraints are transformed into opportunities and these, in turn, are interpreted and targeted with effective collective goals and actions.

Figure 2. Contextual constraints

The key question here is, therefore: How are all these forms of oppression mutually articulated? Unfortunately, the answer often consists of the “addition” of grievances, consciousness, alienation, ideology and hegemony to the main traits of political economy. Others turned the whole paradigm upside down -the so-called “cultural turn”. They claimed that concerns about oppression emerge from cultural battles about freedom, equality and scientific rationality even before the birth of social sciences. The argument is supported with the evidence that the founding fathers of the discipline always interrogated the cultural realm and the dominant values. Hence, they contend, sociology should start research bottom-up, by ascending from cultural dominations up to the political and economic ones.

However, the “cultural turn” risks ending up where the early liberal, pluralist, interactionist and constructionists sociologists stood decades ago: with a notorious disregard for vertical relations. Instead of focusing on oppressions-resistances (type 1) and contextual constraints (type 2), the emphasis is placed on horizontal differences and social exclusion-integration. Society would be thus organised as a collection of many different groups such as households, associations, formal organisations and nationalities according to various cultural, religious, ethnic-racial and ideological backgrounds, but also hinging on, for instance, consumption styles, aesthetic tastes, political preferences and gender identities. Instead of a society defined by the dominant economic mode of production, the relations between different individuals and groups would conform the observable plural diversity of most societies. The verticality of structural cultural oppressions is substituted by a centre-periphery relation where the core is occupied by the most integrated, mainstream, respected and normal, while the periphery hosts the excluded, marginalised, stigmatised and deviated groups (see figure 3).

Following this framework, culture, as the sum of social differences and subcultures, is the prominent area of study because even the economic and the political realms are defined by the values, ideologies and goals of the concerned social groups. They are the outcomes of social constructions, not materially produced by social practices, relations and structures. Some go further and conceive nature primarily as a similar result of socio-cultural constructions. When cultural conflicts are observed, they are not necessarily viewed as a vertical and durable relation of domination, but as a horizontal and contingent relation of differential values. (Again, this is a simplified model since many authors aligned with this perspective claim that boundary making between groups is due to specific practices and political arrangements, not just values, identities or ideological negotiations.)

The main consequence of overlooking vertical relations in the economic and political spheres is to consider the social relations in culture (mostly seen as horizontal, although Lamont, Bourdieu and others tend to see them as vertical too) as the most relevant way to understand society. From this viewpoint, akin to the constructionist and pluralist schools, economic and political decisions are just choices between different almost equal alternatives, not manifestations of persistent structures of oppression. Even state institutions are considered the immediate result of voters’ choices and political parties’ proposals. Another argumentation, following the functionalist tradition, is to consider that all the realms are equally important, only different based on their contribution to the cohesion of society as a whole. At most, social conflicts with different roots may intersect or overlap. In fact, without an explicit consideration of vertical relations, the specific linkages between structures remain a mystery.

Figure 3. Differences and horizontal relations

But what is the meaning of ‘differences’ and ‘horizontal’ relations? These could be easily conceptualised as ‘social relations between equals’ if it were not obvious that, even enjoying similar conditions at a particular level of a vertical structure of oppression, two groups can engage in deep mutual conflicts that involve hierarchical relations as well. Capitalists not only compete with each other, they also cooperate. In fact, they dislike both. As the chief executive of a tech-com recently declared: “competition does not bring any good, monopoly is better for us”. Workers from one industrial sector do not necessarily express empathy with those suffering from a different sector. ‘Solidarity strikes’ are outlawed in many legislations. Female workers in a company may regularly experience harsh forms of patriarchal domination by their male co-workers. Hidden hierarchies based on experience, control of information, friendship, family ties, inherited wealth, etc. are common in most organisations and groups where equal conditions were formally enacted. Among siblings, different skills and preferences might be accentuated or crucially mediated by inequalities in age. In general, three kinds of social relations operating as differences may be distinguished: 1) intra-group; 2) inter-group within the integrated society; 3) inter-group between integrated and excluded groups.

Since absolute equality is impossible, most horizontal differences can be regarded as vertical relations if observed at close range. Age, physical and intellectual abilities, demographic status (married or single, with or without offspring, etc.), gender identities and sexual preferences, consumption and leisure habits, natural environment, geographical location, etc. may work either as differences among equals or as vertical relations of power along economic exploitation, sexism and racism. The twist is a matter of degree, compared to the major structures, and also depends on the interpretations by the actors involved. The key epistemological challenge here is to identify how these differences operate within a similar level of conditions according to the main structural oppressions. If the latter are entirely omitted I conclude that the focus on differences conveys the illusion of a pluralistic, consensual and diverse society. Furthermore, since horizontal relations link class, gender and ethnic relations: how can they be described and explained by ignoring the fundamental structural conflicts expressed by vertical relations?

Finally, this analytical model distinguishes two meanings of the ‘social’. On the one hand, a society is the whole resulting from the aggregation of both vertical and horizontal relations, plus the emergent properties of such a system (different, then, from the properties of its elements, relations and structures). By default, partial accounts of that whole do not satisfy the original promise of social sciences –to accurately know both social structures and processes of social change with power relations as the main driver. The already introduced notion of ‘constrain’, which does not necessarily entail determinism, indicates the hierarchical organisation of contexts or spheres of relations. In a sharper statement: we are all constrained by circumstances not of our choice. At the same time, we all behave within those constraints and in relation to them, whether to conform, reproduce, challenge or change them. The whole creates inescapable conditions for every action. And, as stated above, the whole of every society we know encompasses very solid relations of domination between different groups of human beings.

On the other hand, every vertical and horizontal relation is a social relation itself. This entails that all the inequalities and differences are essentially social, albeit manifested in economic, political and cultural features. Social sciences should find out how these relations unfold, and not only label them. Less promising is to grasp all their defining features with a single blow. ‘Social capital’, for example, was coined as a way to distinguish networks of people who know each other, cooperate with each other and participate in different forms of exchange –friends, community members, family connections, contacts in social media, and so on and so forth. Regardless of the material and cultural content at play in those social relations, the ties themselves (or the group boundaries, if you wish) would suffice to qualify its social dimension. In order to understand these networks I am inclined to use the more refined concept of ‘mechanism’ while adding that it does not necessarily imply to be causal. A mechanism illuminates the specific patterns, forms and configurations that prevail in the ways some groups relate to other groups, in both horizontal and vertical directions. It is these mechanisms, in short, who deserve a special attention for social scientists for their very nature is also social –they are created under the circumstances of a specific society (or dominant social system) and they are simultaneously made of the social relations they contribute to bring about.

To conclude, I argue that we need to understand how class, gender and ethnic oppressions are specifically articulated without missing neither the contextual constraints nor the social mechanisms at play. Secondly, distinguishing significant types of vertical and horizontal relations can lead to grasp their mutual linkages. Finally, it would be advisable to talk about society or ’the social’ in a precise manner able to reveal the reproduction and change of social structures. Perhaps this basic research agenda can bring more clarity in the understanding of intertwined forms of oppression and the struggles that fight them back.


Alfrod, R. & R. Friedland (1985) Powers of Theory. Capitalism, the State, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University.
Bhattacharya, T. (ed.) (2017) Social Reproduction Theory. Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto.
Fraser, N. & A. Honneth (2003) Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. London: Verso.
Wilden, A. (1987) The Rules Are No Game. The Strategy of Communication. London: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: Marc Herbst kindly helped to proof-read a preliminary version of this text. Errors are only my own.

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