White Men Talking
: The Performance of Privileged Identities in an Era of Critical Visibility.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Now as in the past, White, middle-class men in Britain, despite their numerical minority status, are over-represented in positions of power. The normative discourses of Whiteness, masculinity, and middle-classness have provided them the freedom to perform their identities ‘unremarked upon’ and afforded them intersectional privilege. However, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo campaigns have shone a critical light on the day-to-day cultural practices of White, middle-class men and cast them as unacceptable. Consequently, the invisibility of their intersectional privilege is being eroded and the hegemonic social conditions their normativity creates are being challenged. This thesis seeks to understand how White, middle-class men are responding to these challenges and their new-found visibility.

The existing scholarship on privilege theorises that privilege is maintained through its invisibility and by hegemonic discourses’ ability to adapt in changing social contexts. As such, existing accounts do not reveal how privilege responds when it is made visible. To resolve this problem, drawing on Foucault’s and Butler’s theories of subjectification, identity, and agency, whilst working with the literature on Whiteness, masculinity, class, and privilege, I develop a framework that identifies talk as the site of enquiry and provides for the examination of how White, middle-class masculine subjects agentively respond to this critical visibility. These processes are explored through qualitative sociological research involving 37 ‘conversations’ with 19 respondents representing a range of ages, professions, and levels of income and education across 29 social settings over a 6-month period.

The study reveals that in conversation with each other White, middle-class men agentively articulate ‘strategies of signification’ in their talk about race, gender, and class that work to reconstitute their normativity, despite their visibility, and reinforce existing social hierarchies. They do this in ways that re-establish the acceptability of their identities without necessitating any change in behaviour or relinquishing their privilege.
Date of Award22 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorTherese O'Toole (Supervisor) & Jon E Fox (Supervisor)


  • Sociology
  • Whiteness
  • Masculinity
  • Middle-class
  • Intersectionality
  • discourse
  • Judith Butler
  • Michael Foucault
  • Gender
  • Race
  • talk
  • Privilege
  • hegemony
  • power
  • Social interaction
  • Social inequalities
  • social inclusion

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