Sunday, February 17, 2008

Part 1 - Introduction to social class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

I am putting together a manuscript for eventual publication and thought that I would begin by posting it to my very quiet blog. As the "privilege meme" took off and the conversation turned out to be quite interesting, after the initial hate mail, I have a new understanding that the blogsphere is a new marketplace of ideas.
Introduction to Social Class

Talking about social class makes people nervous. Milton Bennett’s (1998) model is a useful tool to deconstruct conversations about class. Many people are in the denial stage about class “We really don’t have class in the US”, they are unaware of the important cultural and personal differences that class apprehends. Others are in the defense stage about class and have a negative attitude about the classes above them or below them “They’re poor because they don’t work hard, and those rich snobs think they’re better than the rest of us.” Still others repeat the myth “Well, we’re all really middle class anyway” minimizing and belittling real class differences. Personal reactions to differences depend on many things, and Bennett’s Intercultural Sensitivity model is one among many useful tools for self examination when class comes up in conversation.

Many people learned in school that class is about money, which is the same as saying that ethnicity is about skin color. Money is part of class and skin color is part of ethnicity. The sticky idea here, the sound bite, is that social class is more than rich and poor. Most models of class are useful in certain ways and inadequate in other ways. The trick is to figure out which tool works best for what you need to do.

How we see class is important. If we see class as about money then we will identify money problems within class and pursue money related solutions to these problems. If we see class as external to the individual, then our understanding of class, the problems we see, and the solutions we promote will reflect this idea that class is external to the individual. If we see class as internal to the individual, then the problems we see, and the solutions we promote will reflect this view of class. If we see class from multiple perspectives, from a more complicated view, the our understanding of the problems of class will be richer, the problems we see will be more complete, and the solutions we promote will be more broad based. Class is more than rich and poor.

The reality of class

Class as income. The reality of class depends on how we describe class. The simplest answer is that class is about money, and money is income. There are huge disparities in US American’s income. While income certainly is a one way to score wealth, is a trucker who makes $80,000 truly upper middle class? Income tables from the US Census Bureau in 2006 (2006) indicate that in 2006 dollars
5% of US American Families make more than $174,102
20% of US American Families make more than $97,032
40% of US American Families make more than $60,000
60% of US American Families make more than $37,774
80% of US American Families make more than $20,035

Class as wealth. Wealth is accumulated economic assets and income is potential wealth. In the contemporary US only a small percent of the population has any wealth at all. Most people owe more money than they have. Mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, school loans are all balanced against savings and retirement dollars. Class as wealth is useful when making distinction among the wealthy, but most people have no wealth.

Class as capital. While Marx (Marx, 1885) used economic capital as one analytic tool to examine class others like Bourdieu (1986) in Forms of Capital suggested that class should also include social capital and cultural capital. Other forms of capital, such as academic capital, have been used to examine the role of class on campus. Social capital is one criteria used by the World Bank in examining loans.

Class as education. August Hollingshead (Hollingshead, 1957) developed the Two factor model of social position and later the Four factor model of social status to help his research. These measures looked at educational attainment and occupational prestige and both are related to income. According to the US Census Bureau (2006) in 2006 of adults over 25
1% have a Doctoral Degree
1 % have Professional Degree
6% have completed a Master’s Degree
28% have completed a Bachelor’s Degree
86% have attained a High School diploma

It must also be noted that 50% of the students at community colleges are “first generation students” whose parents have no experience on any campus, just like the national average. However, only 27% of students at four year colleges are first generation students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1998).

Class as prestige. Prestige is an obvious marker of what is better in US American culture. Higher prestige colleges are considered better colleges. Higher prestige English dialects and varieties are considered better English. Higher prestige clothing, purses, and accessories are considered better. Higher prestige beer is considered better. When higher prestige is put to the test it is not often better. While most people think of class as money, most people behave as if class is prestige.

Class as occupation. Hollingshead’s social status measure (1957) (1975) examined occupational prestige as one marker of class. In US America occupation is very important as a status marker. The most recent examination of occupational prestige comes from Davis, Smith, Hodge, Nakao, and Treas (1991) and provides an overview of what the US American people believe about occupation and prestige.
Class as culture. Social class is a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. (Barratt, 2005). Class can be seen as cultures that have shared values, rituals, beliefs, and even language. When class is seen as culture then all of the tools of ethnicity come into play. The only problem is that ethnicities are often seen as equal, which neglects the inherent inequality of class.

Class as identity. Contemporary US America has been called an identity society. We all develop a gender, ethnic, and class identity at an early age as we go through a process of identification and differentiation. Gender and ethnic identity does not change for most people, and in a society without class movement class identity does not change. However we know that class movement is a fact of life for many, both rising in class and falling in class. This dynamic gives rise to the idea that we all have a social class of origin, a current felt social class, and an attributed social class; where we came from, what we think of ourselves, and what others think of us. As a first generation student moves up in social class a mismatch between their class identities arises. It should not go without notice that this can engender internal conflict.

Class as a system. The fundamental interconnectedness, the multicausality and the equifinality of the elements of class make systems theory an effective tool for working with class. When seen through the lens of class and systems institutions like banks and schools take on a different image. One consequence of the work of these institutions is the recreation and reproduction of class (Bourdieu, 1986). When education is seen as a commodity then it is possible to see luxury goods, mass market items, and discount items that reflect social classes, prestige, and admissions requirements.

Social Class on Campus

Using Strange and Banning’s (Strange & Banning, 2001) model each campus has a social class environment that has coevolved with the campus human aggregate, physical campus, organizational environment, and the constructed campus. Average SAT scores, admissions selectivity, students’ dress, cars, language, and even disposable income are all markers for the campus social class human aggregate. Similarly, the campus physical plant reflects the campus social class environment, with high prestige campuses having more prestigious architectural and physical features. Campus organization reflects stakeholder needs and higher social class students will have different needs than lower social class students. Consequently the campus organization will be different. The constructed social class environment, seen in the light of social class as a social construct, reinforces the collective beliefs of the campus members.

College is a middle classing experience for first generation and lower social class students. The college experience is an opportunity where students can learn the attitudes, values, and behaviors like the speech and dress patterns typical of a higher social class. Disparity between student social class of origin and campus social class environment is no doubt a source of student campus mismatch (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996) (Pascarella, Wolniak, Pierson, & Terenzini, 2003) (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004).

The model, or metaphor, that we use for class determines what we do. How we think about class determines how we act about class. If class is seen as a sociological or group phenomenon then our work with class will be with groups and not with individuals. If class is seen as economic, then our work with class will be economic. If class is seen as cultural then our work with class will be about culture. Having multiple models, being multiparadigmatic, will enable multiple interventions.

Barratt, W. (2005). Socio Economic Status: The inequitable campus. American College Personnel Association Annual Meeting. Nashville, TN.
Bennett, M. (1998). Intercultral communication: A current perspective. . In M. Bennett, Basic concepts of intercultural communication (pp. 1-34). Boston: Intercultural Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson, Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Greenwood Press.
Davis, J., Smith, T., Hodge, R., Nakao, K., & Treas, J. (1991). Occupational presitge ratings from the 1989 general social survey. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.
Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. New Haven, CT: Unpublished manuscript. Department of Sociology, Yale University.
Hollingshead, A. B. (1957). Two factor index of social position. New Haven, CT: Unpublished manuscript. Department of Sociology, Yale University.
Marx, K. (1885). Das kapital: Kritik der politischen oekonomie. Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meisner.
National Center for Educational Statistics. (1998). First generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in post-secondary education. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from
Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C. T., Wolniak, G. C., & Terenzini, P. T. (2004). First-generation college students: Additional evidence on college experiences and outcomes. Journal of Higher Education, 75, 249-284.
Pascarella, E. T., Wolniak, G., Pierson, C., & Terenzini, P. (2003). Experiences and outcomes of first-generation students in community colleges. Journal of College Student Development, 44, 420-429.
Strange, C., & Banning, J. (2001). Educating by design . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First generation college students: Characteristice, experiences, and cognitive development. Reserach in Higher Education , 37 (1), 1-22.
US Census Bureau. (2006). Educational attainment in the United States: 2006. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from
US Census Bureau. (2006). Historical Income Tables - Households. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from

More to come

1 comment:

Michael T said...

Interesting and definitely readable.. I'll catch up eventually, but the intro did get me involved. Now I want to see where you go with this. Good work and good luck.