Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Carol Gould

Committee Members

John Greenwood

Linda Martín Alcoff


Class Consciousness; Collective Action Theory; Social Change; Karl Marx; Critical Social Ontology


This dissertation develops a theory of class consciousness within the framework of collective action theory to clarify the epistemological or cognitive conditions of successful transformative social and political action. In particular, I lay out the relationship between individual and collective cognitive conditions of political action and show how a better understanding of these relationships can further our understanding of the concept of class consciousness as it appears in Marxists social and political thought, the kinds of social epistemological practices that might enable or encourage social transformation, and, more generally, the role of the cognitive or ideal in materialist theories of social transformation.

Chapter One sets up this project by building on three questions asked by the prominent Marxist theorist György Lukács about class consciousness. These questions ask about the character and content of class consciousness, the function of class consciousness, and the historical scope and application of class consciousness. Examining the extant discussion of class consciousness in Marx, Engels, and others reveals that existing answers to these questions do not provide a sufficiently precise characterization of class consciousness and do not adequately address concerns about the practical relevance of or plausibility of realizing class consciousness in the world.

To address these concerns, the remaining three chapters of this dissertation explore the idea of understanding class consciousness as a cognitive and epistemological condition on the forms of collective action capable of radically transforming oppressive or otherwise problematic social conditions. Doing so requires reimagining the critical and political potential of collective action theory. As such, the second and third chapters of this dissertation attempt to understand the limits of contemporary collective action theory and offer some suggestions for how to develop it in a direction that has more critical and political potential.

Chapter Two does so by examining two ways in which collective action theory might be accused of falsely disguising itself as a normatively neutral project interested only in describing, as opposed to prescribing, the structure of collective action. Chapter Three addresses issues that arise when attempting to scale up extant theories of collective action and apply them to the more complex, large-scale forms of collective action involved in targeted or purposeful interventions into social, political, and economic systems, institutions, or structures.

The final chapter applies the resulting critical approach to collective action theory in order to precisely articulate a theory of class consciousness, its practical value, and its scope of application. I argue that the concept of class consciousness is best thought of as a prescriptive description of the content and character of the form that collective intentions must take if collective actors are to be able to enact profound socio-economic or political transformation. I conclude by examining the implications of this theory, focusing primarily on its practical prescriptions, its relationship to intersectional politics, and fit with a generally materialist understanding of social transformation.