Theory and Society

, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 535–558 | Cite as

The image of the veil in social theory

  • Peter BaehrEmail author


Social theory draws energy not just from the concepts it articulates but also from the images it invokes. This article explores the image of the veil in social theory. Unlike the mask, which suggests a binary account of human conduct (what is covered can be uncovered), the veil summons a wide range of human experiences. Of special importance is the veil’s association with religion. In radical social thought, some writers ironize this association by “unveiling” religion as fraudulent (a move indistinguishable from unmasking it.) Baron d’Holbach and Marx offer classic examples of this stratagem. But other writers, notably Du Bois and Fanon, take a more nuanced and more theoretically productive approach to both religion and the veil. Refusing to debunk religion, these authors treat the veil—symbol and material culture—as a resource to theorize about social conflict. Proceeding in three stages, I, first, contrast the meanings of mask and unmasking with more supple veil imagery; second, identify anti-religious unveiling that is tantamount to unmasking; and, third, examine social theories of the veil that clarify the stakes of social adversity and political struggle. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s contributions to veil imagery receive special attention.


Du Bois and Fanon Images and social theory Mask and unmasking Religion and social theory Veil and unveiling Veils of color 



Research for this article was supported by a Fellowship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Committee. Fund Code: LU301-HSS-13. I also wish to acknowledge the helpful suggestions of Judith Adler and Daniel Gordon, and the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers.


  1. Abbott, A. (2016). Processual Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arendt, H. (1963). On revolution. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  3. Arendt, H. (1968). Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace.Google Scholar
  4. Augustine. (1991). [written AD 397–400]. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baehr, P. (2001). The ‘Iron cage’ and the ‘Shell as hard as steel.’ Parsons, Weber, and the stahlhartes Gehäuse metaphor in The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. History and Theory, 40(2), 153–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baehr, P. (2019a). The unmasking style in social theory. New York and London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Baehr, P. (2019b). Unmasking Religion: Marx’s Stance, Tocqueville’s Alternative. In D. Gordon (Ed.), The Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville (pp. 21–42). New York: Anthem Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Baehr, P., & Gordon, D. (2013). From the headscarf to the burqa: The role of social theorists in shaping Laws against the veil. Economy and Society, 42(2), 249–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Belting, H. (2013) 2017. Face and Mask. A Double History. Translated by Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Black, D. (2011). Moral Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blum, Edward J. 2007. W.E.B. Du Bois. American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  12. Brodwin, S. (1972). The veil transcended: Form and meaning in W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘the souls of Black folk. Journal of Black Studies, 2(3), 303–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bukala, C. R. (1976). Sartre’s phenomenology of the mask. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 7(3), 198–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bunyan, J. [1678] (2008). The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come. Edited with an introduction and notes by Roger Pooley. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  15. Burckhardt, J. [1860] (1990). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S.G.C. Middlemore. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  16. Burke, E. (1790) 1999. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Foreword by Francis Canavan. Introduction by E. J. Payne. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
  17. Carlyle, T. [1833–34] (1987). Sartor Resartus. Edited with an introduction and notes by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Cohen, N. J. (2012). Masking and unmasking ourselves. Interpreting biblical texts on clothing and identity. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing.Google Scholar
  19. Corcoran, P. (2000). Awaiting apocalypse. London: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. D’Holbach, B. (= Paul-Henri Thiry). (1819). Christianity Unveiled; Being and Examination of the Principles and Effects of the Christian Religion (orig. 1761), trans. W.M. Johnson: London: R. Carlile,
  21. Maupassant, Guy de. (1885) 2008. Bel-Ami. Edited by Robert Lethbridge. Translated by Margaret Mauldon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Tocqueville, A. de [1835 and 1840] (2004). Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America.Google Scholar
  23. Douglass, F.. (1852). What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
  24. Du Bois, W.E.B. [1903] (1986). The Souls of Black Folk. In W.E.B Du Bois: Writings. Edited by Nathan Huggins (pp. 359–546). New York: Library of America.Google Scholar
  25. Du Bois, W.E.B. [1920] (1999). Darkwater: Voices from within the veil. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  26. Du Bois, W.E.B. [1903] (2007). The souls of black folk. Edited with an introduction and notes by Brent Hayes Edwards. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Dumas, A. [1852] (1904). My Memoirs Vol. 4 (1830–1831). Translated by E.M. Waller. New York: The Macmillan Company. Project Guttenberg,
  28. Durkheim, E. [1912] (1995). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Edited and translated by Fields K. E. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  29. Eliot, G.. [1859] (1999). The lifted veil. In The lifted veil and brother Jacob. Edited with an introduction and notes by Helen Small (pp. 3–43). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Ellmann, R. (1948). Yeats. The man and the masks. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  31. Fanon, F. ([1959] (1965). A dying colonialism. Translated from the French by Haakon Chevalier, with an introduction by Adolfo Gilly. New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  32. Fanon, F. [1952] (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox, with a foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  33. Feuerbach, L. [1841] (1881). The Essence of Christianity. Translated by Marian Evans [aka George Eliot]. London: Trübner and Co.Google Scholar
  34. Fingarette, H. [1969] (2000). Self-deception. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  35. Geroulanos, S. (2017). Transparency in postwar France. A critical history of the present. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual. Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  37. Hawthorne, N. [1832] (2017). The Minister’s Black veil: A parable. In Selected short stories (pp. 31–43). New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  38. Hazlitt, W. [1828–1830] (1991a). The French revolution. In William Hazlitt: Selected writings (pp. 84–98). Edited with an introduction and notes by Jon Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Hazlitt, W. [1807] (1991b). Character of Mr. Burke, In William Hazlitt: Selected writings (pp. 54–66). Edited with an introduction and notes by Jon Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Heine, H. [1831] (2006). The town of Lucca. In The harz journey and selected prose (pp. 147–192). Edited and translated by Ritchie Robertson. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  41. Herder, J. G. [1774]. (2004). Another philosophy of history for the education of mankind. One among many contributions of the century. In Another philosophy of history and selected political writings (pp. 3–97). Translated, with an introduction and notes by Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  42. Hollis, M. (1985). Of Masks and Men. In M. Carrithers, S. Collins, & S. Lukes (Eds.), The category of the person. Anthropology, Philosophy, History (pp. 217–233). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. James, W.. [1902] (1985). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  44. James, W. [1899]. (2000). On a certain blindness in human beings. In Pragmatism and other writings (pp. 267–285). Edited with an introduction and notes by Giles Gunn. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  45. Jay, M. (1993). Downcast eyes. The denigration of vision in twentieth-century French thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  46. Judt, T. (2008). Arthur Koestler, the exemplary intellectual. In Reappraisals: Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (pp. 25–43). New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  47. Kant, I. [1798] (1970). The Contest of the Faculties. In Kant’s political writings (pp. 176–190). Edited and translated by Hans Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  48. La Bruyère, Jean de. [1688] (1885). Of opinions. In The characters: of Jean de La Bruyère. Translated by Henri Van Lauen. London: John C. Nimmo.Google Scholar
  49. Lévi-Strass, C.. [1975] (1982). The way of the masks. Translated by Sylvia Modelski. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  50. Lewis, D. L. [1993] (2009). W.E.B. Du Bois: A biography 1869–1963. New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  51. Macintyre, B. (2004). A spy among friends. Kim Philby and the great betrayal. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  52. Marx, K. [1845] (1975). Concerning Feuerbach. In Karl Marx, Early writings. Introduced by Lucio Colletti, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (pp. 421–423). London: Penguin/New Left Review.Google Scholar
  53. Marx, K. [1867] (1992). Capital. A critique of political economy volume 1. Introduced by Ernest Mandel. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  54. Mauss, M. [1938] (1985). A Category of the Human Mind: the Notion of Person; the Notion of Self. In The category of the Person. Anthropology, Philosophy, History (pp. 1–25.) Translated by W.D. Halls. Edited by Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Mele, A. R. (2000). Self-deception unmasked. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mishima, Y.. [1949] (2017). Confessions of a mask. Translated by Meredith Weatherby. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  57. Morris, A.D. (2015). The scholar denied. W.E.B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology. Oakland: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  58. Morson, G. S. (2013). Prosaics and other provocations. Empathy, open time, and the novel. Boston: Academic Studies Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Müller, F.M. [1888] (1987). Biographies of words and the home of the Aryas. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.Google Scholar
  60. Muller, J. Z. (1997). Conservatism. An anthology of social and political thought from David Hume to the present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Murphy, R. (1964). Social distance and the veil. American Anthropologist, 66, 1257–1274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Nietzsche, F. [1882] (1974). The gay science. Edited, translated, and with a commentary by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  63. Nietzsche, F. (1886) (2008). Beyond good and evil. Edited and translated by M. Faber. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge: Belknap.Google Scholar
  65. Rigney, D. (2001). The metaphorical society. An invitation to social theory. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  66. Sartre, J.-P. [1943] (1956). Being and nothingness. A phenomenological essay on ontology. Translated with an introduction by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.Google Scholar
  67. Sartre, J.-P. [1946] (2007). Existentialism is a humanism. Translated by Carol Macomber with an introduction by Annie Cohen-Solal. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Swedberg, R. (2009). Tocqueville’s political economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Swedberg, R. (2014). The art of social theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Tolstoy, L. [1904] (2004). Hadji Muràd. In Great short works of Leo Tolstoy (pp. 549–668). Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Edited by John Bayley. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  71. Turner, C. (2010). Investigating sociological theory. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  72. Weber, M. [1926] (1988). Max Weber: A biography. Translated and edited by Harry Zohn, with an introduction by Guenther Roth. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  73. Weber, M. [1904-05] (2002). The protestant ethic and the “Spirit” of capitalism and other writings. Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  74. West, R. (1941) 2006. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A journey through Yugoslavia. With an introduction by Geoff dyer. Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd.Google Scholar
  75. Wilde, O.. [1885] (2008). The truth of masks. A note on illusion. In Complete works of Oscar Wilde (pp. 1060–1078). Introduction by Vyvyan Holland. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  76. Woodward, B. (1987). Veil: The secret wars of the CIA, 1981–1987. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  77. Wright, R. [1956] (2008). The color curtain. In Richard Wright, Black power: Three books from exile. Black power; The color curtain; and white man, listen! (pp. 429–630). Introduced by Cornel West. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  78. Yeats, W. B. (1922). The trembling of the veil. London: T.W. Laurie Ltd.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Social PolicyLingnan UniversityTuen MunHong Kong

Personalised recommendations