Power is central to sociological discussions of inequality, but often remains in the background veiled by structural concerns and definitional ambiguities. This dissertation aims to center the discussion of power and inequality by focusing on how power is experienced and contested by the most vulnerable actors. Building on the case of American slavery, I turn to the voices of the enslaved themselves in one of the first sociological analyses exploring the rich and harrowing stories told by formerly enslaved narrators.
Slavery is defined by the enforced condition of natal alienation or the removal of all meaningful familial and community ties. This natal alienation contributes to the social death of the enslaved (Patterson 1982). I outline how natal alienation and social death fit into the wider discussion of inequality by tracing the recent genealogy of power within social theory from a one-dimensional view of raw physical and economic domination to more cultural and multidimensional conceptualizations. Despite the dominance endemic to slave systems, historical research grounded in the voices of the formerly enslaved emphasizes the everyday forms of resistance in which the enslaved engage; however, the everyday resistance frame remains contentious for at least two reasons: First, critics question the issue of intentionality – or the notion that subordinate actors are in “constant rebellion” (Tilly 1991:598). Second, scholars have challenged the material effect of everyday forms of resistance.
I rebuild the notion of everyday resistance through Bourdieu’s concept of an independent, but overlapping symbolic field. Symbolic contestation, to Bourdieu, is both connected to and separate from other fields, such as the economic and social. Actors struggle over symbolic resources with the tools available to them. I specify the location and content of these struggles by clarifying the centrality of micropractices of power in the maintenance of power relations and by briefly building upon theories of recognition and status. In addition to more structural and material constraints, inequality is perpetuated and contested through symbolic practices at a more proximate level. I specify a continuum for understanding the heterogeneity of subordinates’ responses, including those described by the formerly enslaved themselves.
To capture a holistic picture of the heterogeneity of subordinate response, I employ methods that facilitate casting a wide net to capture a diversity of subordinate actors’ voices. I use innovative tools developed in computational linguistics and the information sciences to systematically and formally analyze the 130 slave narratives published between 1800 and 1930 accumulated in this corpus. I specifically construct a word network map. This map reveals prominent clusters of words through their cumulative appearances in different narratives. I use the word network map as an index for qualitative exploration cross-referencing terms identified in the network with the narratives themselves.
Results indicate the presence of six emergent themes in the word network map: polemics, religion, reading and writing, crime and escape, everyday life, and the master-slave relationship. The word network map coupled with the qualitative analysis derived from it contributes to our understanding of American slavery in at least three ways. First, the network analysis reveals the centrality of the master-slave and everyday life clusters emphasizing their role in connecting themes to one another. Moreover, the everyday life cluster, identified as the primary location of symbolic struggle, is proximate to the master-slave cluster: physical violence and symbolic struggle are linked. Second, contrary to more monolithic constructions of resistance, qualitative analyses reveal the heterogeneity of responses to the enslaved condition as narrators describe quiescence, projective agency, everyday resistance, and more formal resistance to the primary conditions of natal alienation and social death. Third, we can also observe the extent to which the master class develops parallel symbolic strategies to maintain these conditions.
I conclude by situating the notion of social death in the broader context of a moral sociology of inequality. The broader struggle for recognition offers analytic direction for the future exploration of the role that symbolic struggles play in provoking societal change. I further highlight how the incorporation of text data through the increasingly more sophisticated analytic tools can open the door for large-scale analyses of hundreds of diverse actors’ voices. Recent theoretical and analytic developments promise a more complete picture of subordination and inequality, including but not limited to enslaved life, by using broad strokes to guide our detailed understanding of the heterogeneity of response to material and symbolic forms of subordination.