Unpacking the Everyday

Newly released from UTP, Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition is an innovative text that provides undergraduate students with tools to think sociologically through the lens of everyday life. In this post, the authors explain the book and why they encourage students to turn their social worlds inside out and explore alternatives to the dominant social order.

By Deborah Brock, Aryn Martin, Rebecca Raby, and Mark P. Thomas.

Our new book Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition encourages students to explore everyday practices that are familiar and that might, at first glance, seem benign: online shopping, using a credit card, buying a cup of coffee, even taking an online quiz. By “everyday” we mean the practices that are a part of people’s commonplace and taken-for-granted activities. But people’s everyday activities reflect, reproduce, and sometimes challenge a wide range of power relations. In Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition we will encourage you to ask questions about these kinds of practices. We ask how: How are everyday occurrences connected to the social organization of power? How are gender, class, race, citizenship and age shaped and reflected in many such taken-for-granted practices? How are the goods that we are buying produced, and by whom? How do practices such as travelling, shopping, and getting a credit card reflect and reproduce power, even creating our very sense of who we are? We also address the why questions that these examples will no doubt bring to mind: Why are certain patterns of consumption encouraged and facilitated? And who benefits from these patterns?

For example, even that café latte some cherish as an everyday ritual reflects a geography, history, and economy of power relations. These relations become visible when we begin to study where coffee beans come from, who grows and harvests them, how they come to be ground and sold in drinks, and how they are marketed to the North American consumer. The choice to buy a cup of coffee— including what kind of coffee and where it is bought—is a practice embedded in a global web of power relations. The places we shop, the products we buy, and the websites we visit are all a part of a system of consumption that links us to people, places, and things that seem very distant from our own lives.

We ask students to explore popular culture and mass media to understand how they are permeated with power relations: selling certain kinds of images, promoting individualized self-improvement, cultivating desires that support a consumer culture, and through these practices, reproducing power relations of race, gender, heterosexuality, ability, and a narrow concept of beauty. How are we pressured to try to shape ourselves to better fit a presumed ideal?

The chapters in this textbook address the diverse power relations embedded in such everyday objects and practices. They complicate objects and practices that many of us take for granted and offer new, sometimes unsettling ways of thinking about them. They illustrate how a cup of coffee is never just a cup of coffee and why a quiz is never just a quiz. When we begin to examine everyday objects and practices in this way, we also begin a process of “unpacking the centre.”

Most sociological textbooks do not directly investigate what we will refer to here as the centre. It is much more common for them to analyze social deviance through the lens of the normative social order, or to focus on what happens to people who exist at the margins: the racialized, the colonized, the so-called sexual “minorities,” the poor, and so on. Some scholars have instead focused on studying the centre in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how power relations are organized. They “unpack” the centre—just like taking apart a piece of mechanical equipment—in order to find out how it works. To focus almost exclusively on the deviant or the marginalized without interrogating the centre is to risk reproducing a pattern that defines the margins as the location of the problem.

For example, we think it imperative to conduct sociological research on same-gender sexuality in order to document the forms of systemic and attitudinal inequality that marginalize people because of their sexual desires and practices. However, when scholars focus on same-gender sexuality while ignoring the social construction of heterosexuality, we continue to name same-gender attraction, including being gay, lesbian or bisexual as, in effect, the problem for sociological inquiry, even though our objective may be to explain why these forms of sexuality should not be considered a problem. Heterosexuality is able to maintain its privileged position as the normal and natural form of sexual expression.  The binary two-gender system is another way in which our relation to ourselves and others is normatively, and narrowly, organized. Yet this system de-legitimates or erases a vast array of possibilities for living one’s life. Why the insistence that there are only two genders, when they limit possibilities for so many of us, and substantial numbers of people refuse to be contained by them?  Whiteness is another social characteristic that occupies the centre. Academic and public accounts of racism commonly focus on the impact of racism on people of colour, and ignore the social construction of whiteness and the relations of power and privilege connected to whiteness. The social organization of whiteness, however, is an important part of practices of racialization and the problems of racism. Racism is also perpetuated when those who occupy the centre fail to acknowledge systematic historic and current racial and cultural ideas and practices that are deeply connected to colonialism and the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.

This approach to studying the social organization of everyday objects and practices draws attention to what sociologists have long referred to as patterns of social inequality. We are interested in power primarily because of the ways it produces and sustains inequalities between social groups. We do not, however, simply focus on patterns of social inequality as the outcome of power. While themes of inequality are certainly present in the chapters in this book, our approach seeks to understand the social organization of dominant power relations in terms of the ways in which these power relations shape both broad patterns of inequality and everyday experiences. In other words, we do not simply aim to document different levels of socioeconomic status, as stratification theorists often do (Aronowitz 2003); rather, we are interested in the social relations that produce and reproduce the “normal,” the dominant, and the “centre.” This means our analysis focuses on understanding relationships between social processes, social groups, and individuals as they live their daily lives.

To unpack the centre is to explore the taken for granted features of dominant forms of social organization. It is the most difficult to see that a centre exists when you occupy it— for example, when you are white, heterosexual, a citizen, or someone with an ample secure income. It is not so difficult when you are an Indigenous person, a non-citizen, do not identify as straight, are racialized, or are in some way minoritized. We want you to become particularly aware of the ways in which centuries of colonization have placed the descendants of colonizers in a position of assumed ownership of the homelands of Indigenous peoples, for which they typically never ceded title. Finally, the experiences of migrant workers reveal how citizenship and national belonging are part of the centre, even while they might wish such acceptance for themselves. In Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition we aim to show how these active and ongoing social processes are integral to everyday life.

Want to learn more from Power and Everyday Practices, Second Edition?

  • Purchase your copy of the book.
  • Read an exclusive chapter.
  • Email us at requests@utorontopress.com to request exam or desk copies of this or any other UTP title. Please be sure to include the course name and number, start date, and estimated enrollment.

Deborah Brock is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.

Aryn Martin is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.

Rebecca Raby is a professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University.

Mark P. Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at York University.