Appropriation Definition

Appropriation, in a sociological and economic context, refers to the process by which the surplus value generated by the labor of non-owners of the means of production is taken by the owners of these means. This concept is central to Marxist theory, which posits that capitalist societies are characterized by the exploitation of a subordinate laboring class by a dominant owning class. The owners, or capitalists, compel workers to produce more value than what is necessary for their survival, appropriating this surplus value for their own benefit.

This exploitation is not just a matter of economic transaction but is deeply embedded in the social and political structures of capitalist societies. The concept of appropriation helps explain the dynamics of power, inequality, and class conflict that are fundamental to the capitalist system.

Historical Context and Evolution

The concept of appropriation has its roots in the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed a critical analysis of capitalist economies in the 19th century. Their seminal works, including Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, outlined how the capitalist mode of production relies on the exploitation of labor. According to Marx, the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce it. However, workers receive only a fraction of this value in the form of wages, while the surplus value is appropriated by capitalists as profit.

Marxist theory argues that this appropriation of surplus value is the fundamental source of profit in capitalist economies and is intrinsic to the exploitation of labor. Over time, this concept has been expanded and analyzed by various scholars to understand the complexities of capitalist economies and the persistent inequalities they produce.

Key Concepts in Marxist Theory of Appropriation

  1. Surplus Value: Surplus value is the value produced by labor over and above the cost of labor power (wages). This surplus is appropriated by the capitalist as profit.
  2. Means of Production: The means of production include all the physical, non-human inputs used in production, such as factories, machines, and tools. In capitalist societies, these means are owned by the capitalists.
  3. Labor Power: Labor power refers to the capacity of individuals to perform work. Under capitalism, labor power is treated as a commodity that workers sell to capitalists in exchange for wages.
  4. Exploitation: Exploitation occurs when workers produce more value than they receive in wages, with the surplus value being appropriated by capitalists.
  5. Class Conflict: Class conflict arises from the inherent antagonism between the capitalist class (owners of the means of production) and the working class (non-owners who sell their labor power).

Sociological Explanation

From a sociological perspective, appropriation is not merely an economic process but a social relationship characterized by power dynamics and structured inequalities. Sociologists analyze how appropriation shapes social relations, institutional structures, and individual experiences within capitalist societies.

Theoretical Perspectives on Appropriation

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalists view society as a complex system with interrelated parts working together to maintain stability and social order. From this perspective, appropriation is seen as a mechanism that sustains the functioning of the capitalist economy by incentivizing production and innovation.

  1. Social Order: Structural functionalists argue that appropriation contributes to social order by creating economic incentives for investment and entrepreneurship, which are essential for economic growth and development.
  2. Role Differentiation: The differentiation of roles between capitalists and workers is seen as necessary for the efficient functioning of the economy, with each group contributing to the overall stability of the system.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists, particularly those influenced by Marxist theory, view appropriation as a central mechanism of exploitation and class conflict.

  1. Power and Inequality: Conflict theorists argue that appropriation is a form of economic exploitation that reinforces existing power structures and perpetuates inequality within capitalist societies.
  2. Class Struggle: The appropriation of surplus value is seen as a primary source of class struggle, as the interests of capitalists and workers are fundamentally opposed. Capitalists seek to maximize profit by increasing surplus value, while workers strive for higher wages and better working conditions.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionists focus on the everyday interactions and meanings that individuals attach to social phenomena, including appropriation.

  1. Perceptions of Exploitation: Symbolic interactionists study how workers perceive their own exploitation and the ways in which these perceptions influence their actions and attitudes toward work and capitalism.
  2. Identity and Work: This perspective also examines how the appropriation of surplus value affects workers’ identities and their sense of self-worth, as well as the meanings they attach to their labor.

Examples and Case Studies

  1. Industrial Capitalism: In traditional industrial capitalism, appropriation is clearly observed in the relationship between factory owners and workers. Workers produce goods that have a higher market value than the wages they receive, with the surplus value being appropriated by the factory owners as profit.
    • Example: A factory worker produces goods worth $500 in a day but receives only $100 as wages. The remaining $400 is the surplus value appropriated by the factory owner.
  2. Global Supply Chains: Modern global supply chains illustrate appropriation on an international scale, where workers in developing countries produce goods for multinational corporations, often under exploitative conditions.
    • Example: Workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh may produce clothing for a global brand, receiving minimal wages while the brand appropriates significant surplus value through the sale of these goods at a much higher price in international markets.
  3. Gig Economy: The gig economy presents new forms of appropriation, where platform companies extract surplus value from gig workers who have limited job security and benefits.
    • Example: A ride-sharing driver may earn $200 in fares in a day, but after deducting platform fees and expenses, the surplus value is appropriated by the ride-sharing company.
  4. Technological Innovation: The appropriation of surplus value is also evident in industries driven by technological innovation, where the profits from new technologies and processes are concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists.
    • Example: A tech company may develop a new software application, with the programmers and developers receiving fixed salaries while the majority of the profits generated from the software sales are appropriated by the company’s shareholders and executives.

Methodological Approaches in Studying Appropriation

Sociological research on appropriation employs various methodologies to understand its impact and implications:

  1. Quantitative Research: Statistical analyses and economic modeling are used to measure the extent of surplus value appropriation and its impact on income distribution and economic inequality.
  2. Qualitative Research: Interviews, ethnographies, and case studies provide insights into the lived experiences of workers, their perceptions of exploitation, and the social dynamics of appropriation.
  3. Comparative Studies: Cross-national comparisons help identify differences in appropriation mechanisms across various capitalist economies and highlight the effects of different labor and economic policies.
  4. Historical Analysis: Historical research traces the evolution of appropriation practices and their impact on economic and social structures over time.

Challenges and Criticisms

Addressing the challenges associated with appropriation involves several key considerations:

  1. Addressing Inequality: Efforts to mitigate the inequalities resulting from appropriation may include policies aimed at redistributing wealth, such as progressive taxation, social welfare programs, and labor rights protections.
  2. Promoting Fair Labor Practices: Ensuring fair wages, safe working conditions, and job security can help reduce the exploitative aspects of appropriation and improve the well-being of workers.
  3. Sustainable Economic Models: Exploring alternative economic models, such as cooperative enterprises and social enterprises, may provide more equitable distribution of surplus value and reduce exploitation.
  4. Regulating Global Supply Chains: Strengthening regulations and oversight of global supply chains can help protect workers’ rights and ensure fair compensation for labor in developing countries.
  5. Technological and Labor Policies: Developing policies that address the impact of technological advancements on labor, such as automation and gig work, can help mitigate the negative effects of appropriation in modern economies.


Appropriation, as a central concept in Marxist theory, provides a critical lens for understanding the dynamics of exploitation and inequality in capitalist societies. From a sociological perspective, appropriation is not merely an economic process but a complex social relationship that shapes power dynamics, class conflict, and social inequality.

By examining the mechanisms and implications of appropriation, sociologists can gain insights into the underlying causes of economic disparities and the ways in which capitalist systems perpetuate exploitation. Addressing the challenges associated with appropriation requires a multifaceted approach, including policy reforms, fair labor practices, and the exploration of alternative economic models.

As societies continue to grapple with issues of inequality and exploitation, the concept of appropriation remains a vital tool for analyzing the structures and processes that shape our economic and social realities. Through ongoing research and critical analysis, sociologists can contribute to the development of more equitable and just economic systems that prioritize the well-being of all individuals.

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