Wal-Mart turning point

Eleven years later, the first ripples from the Wal-Mart gender discrimination case reach the Supreme Court.

The showdown has been called the biggest case of this term. Will the Court allow a class action to proceed against Wal-Mart (the prototypical gendered workplace), or will it dissolve the power of a million plus women who worked there? In a split decision, a federal appeals court has allowed the class action to go forward. The high court hears the case Tuesday.

From the plaintiff's materials at walmartclass.com

My previous posts (here and here), address some of the sociological issues, but on the current hearing, see the NY Times report on the social science crux of the matter: sociologist Bill Bielby’s use of “social framework analysis” to situate the condition of many women within a common organizational context, suitable for collective consideration. That aspect of that case is what terrifies big businesses from Costco to Intel, who have filed briefs in support of Wal-Mart.

The stakes are uncomfortably high, but it’s exciting to see sociological analysis play a pivotal role in confronting practices that reproduce inequality. (Notably, the brief filed by the American Sociological Association supports Bielby’s methods.) Class actions are a counterbalance to the atomizing nature of a legal system that often dissolves systemic inequalities into personal harms and individualistic remedies. Says Slate‘s Richard Thomas Ford:

Ultimately what’s at stake in Dukes v. Wal-Mart is whether class-action lawsuits will continue to be a way to address pervasive discrimination, or whether America’s battle against prejudice will have to be fought on a case-by-case basis. This has been the central question in many of the most important civil rights disputes of the last 30 years. And in almost every case since the early 1980s, the Supreme Court has come down on the side of individualism against social justice. That statistic doesn’t look so good for the women suing Wal-Mart—or for equal opportunity generally.

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