The image of the veil in social theory


Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)535-558
Number of pages24
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number4
Early online date5 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

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.


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


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