Starting from the uniformity of moral statements about social inequality during the Obama presidency, this article historicizes those statements by analyzing an archive of discourse drawn from Victorian England. Despite its distance in time and place, the archive reveals striking commonalities with the terms and phrases that invariably populate debates about social inequality in the American political field today. Drawing on critical theories of the archive, this article leverages those commonalities for the hermeneutic purpose of historicizing moral discourse. As I argue, moral statements like “equality of opportunity” and “equality of reward/outcome” resulted from the application of civil ideas and oppositions to interpret phenomena like poverty and social inequality during the eventful history of the Victorian period. The findings challenge T.H. Marshall’s classic argument about the origin of social rights as descendent of civil rights. The article concludes by discussing the broader implications of historicizing moral discourse, demonstrating the reflexive use of the archive to engage in a politics of meaning about social inequality.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Sep 5, 2016
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