Sunday, December 11, 2011

An interaction model of social class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Social class defined

Social class is an interaction between a person, a person’s behavior, and a person’s environment. 

Why propose another definition of social class? 

Definitions of social class tend to be specific.  From one perspective specificity is effective and useful and from another perspective it is not.  When definitions of social class are specific then seeing social class as both personal and social creates a clash of definitions.  It is efficient to explore social class from within a specific paradigm, but it is not effective in understanding the totality of social class to remain within a single paradigm.  A definition of social class from an interaction paradigm allows a broader understanding of social class. 

The simple question “What is social class” leads to broadly complex answers.  Definitions of social class abound and are often contradictory.  Is social class a trait or a state, is it static or dynamic, is it internal or external to the person, is it contextual or eternal, is it objective or subjective?  Often the marker of social class, for example occupational prestige, is substituted as a definition for social class.  This is similar to the mistake of using IQ test scores for a definition of intelligence.   

Different ideas of the nature of inquiry lead to different ideas about the definition of social class.  Levels of accuracy are an ongoing question in the sciences and any discipline that uses any sort of measurement.  Discussions about the Standard Error of Measurement are common in interpreting research results.  The quest for absolute accuracy, for 0.00 Standard Error of Measurement, requires an absolute differential definition that is precise and universal and a measure that is unerringly accurate.  Both the universal definition and the precise measure seem unlikely to emerge given the history of scholarship on social class.  Social class is just too messy for precision.  A dynamic, contextual, and co-constructive definition of social class, or of anything else, is a problem if you are seeking accuracy.  However, if you are seeking to explore human interactions, which are by definition messy, then dynamic, contextual, and co-constructive definitions are required. 


“Do you have a gender if you are alone?”

“Do you have a social class if you are alone?”

For me, the answer to these questions is “Yes, and . . . “.  For me gender and social class are person issues and behavior issues and occur within an environment.  Even alone you are in some physical environment. 

Toward the end of understanding social class, and even to the extent of measuring social class, I found myself increasingly drawn to contextual and dynamic views of social class.  Working on the idea of social class in mental health (Barratt, Burrow, Kendrick, Parrott, & Tippin, 2003) the contextual idea of an individual’s social class became an issue in our discussions.  Think of the supervisor of a hotel cleaning crew and her work context with the women and men she supervises, her work context with her supervisor, and her home context.  Her social status, one component of social class, changes in each context.  Interrogating this idea, the members of my research group were confronted with the question of what exactly changes; her identity, her self-concept, her relationships, or what? 

This problem of the contextual and dynamic nature of class seemed intractable to us at the time.  After completing a book on social class on campus (Barratt, 2011) that used multiple lenses and multiple definitions of class the context problem re-emerged in the question of how and if to include all of the definitions of social class into a single and useful model.  Combining the ideas of social class as identity, social class as capital, social class as prestige, social class as educational attainment, etc. was not on my agenda when I wrote the book.  I was satisfied helping readers to consider social class from multiple perspectives. 

As a doctoral student I had studied Lewin’s (1951) life space equation B=f(P,E) (Behavior is a function of person – environment interaction).  I had later read Bandura’s (1989) B-P-E model.  I had always liked these interaction models that put people and behavior into context.  It occurred to me that I could map social class onto these ideas of behavior, person, and environment to understand and more accurately define social class in a dynamic and contextual way.  After several trial sketches a pattern began to emerge and things began to fall into place.  I wrote three (person, environment, behavior)  short list of dimensions that would best reflect social class.  There is a potentially huge list of dimensions under person, or environment, or behavior and this model can be expanded or contracted to meet the analytical needs of the moment.  I chose contraction as a way to simplify the idea of social class as interaction here.

It is important to note that the lists of dimensions listed under person, environment, and behavior are neither exhaustive, not mutually exclusive, and those listed here were included for efficacy and efficiency.  Readers are welcome to expand each list in order to highlight certain issues.  For example I have often used academic capital and leadership capital when writing about students.  Strict adherence to Bourdieu’s (1986) three forms of capital, economic, cultural, and social, would require that academic capital and leadership capital is included under cultural capital.  Utility would suggest that academic capital and leadership capital may be featured prominently, and alone, as dimensions under the person section.  The list of dimensions in person, environment, and behavior should reflect the problem the interaction model is being used to address. 


In the person category social class identity is the first dimension for many reasons.  Bourdieu’s (1986) three forms of capital are very useful, and can fall under both person and environment and fill out the basic dimensions under person.  There is a strong relationship between an individual’s social class identity and their economic capital, their cultural capital, and their social capital.  These interactions within the person category reflect the interactions between the three categories of person, environment, and behavior.  For example an individual’s social class identity will be sensitive to their economic environment.  Were I to be in a meeting with the elite wealthy, an unlikely event, my current felt social class identity would be quite different than if I were in a meeting with people in my church.

Social class identity is similar to other forms of identity, and includes our social class of origin identity, current felt social class identity, and attributed social class identity.  Economic capital is income and wealth.  Cultural capital is prestige knowledge and skill, certificates of attainment like college degrees or even occupational titles.  Cultural capital can include academic knowledge and skills, leadership knowledge and skills, or even spiritual knowledge and skills.  Social capital is the network of people who can be called upon for mutual work and benefit.  These networks take skill to build.  All forms of capital take time to accumulate, and some people begin to accumulate these forms of capital at home at a young age, and some begin to accumulate capital at an older age.  Beginning to accumulate any form of capital at a young age is obviously to anyone’s advantage.


Environments involve physical space, so the physical environment has been included as the first dimension.  Space also reflects the economic, cultural, and social context in which that space is found.  Look around you now as you read this.  How many social class messages are there in your immediate physical space?  Bourdieu’s (1986) three forms of capital map well to the disciplines of economics, sociology, and social psychology.  This match in the categories listed in person and environment has great utility when exploring the interactions between a person and the world.  My economic capital exists within a larger economic environment.  My economic environment changes when I travel and consequently my economic capital changes.  The relative costs of a good meal in Rio de Janeiro and Terre Haute, and my reaction to those costs differences, illustrates how the economic environment and my perception of economic capital interact.

The environment axis should be seen as reflecting the immediate physical, economic, cultural, and social environment as well as the local environment, the larger regional environment, and even the global physical, economic, cultural, and social environment.  Where you choose to draw the boundaries between those ever increasingly sized environments will be a matter of the analysis you want.  Bronfenbrenner (1979) developed a system describing our layers of physical environments ranging from the immediate micorsystem to the, meso, exo, and macrosystem.  Bronfenbrenner also included the chronosystem to include the passage of time as another way to understand the environment around us.  This is an interesting analytical tool to explore the layers of the social class world around us.


Behavior is both conscious and unconscious, is both psychological and physical.  Behaviors mediates between the person and the environment.  Actions are gross motor behaviors; actions are our bodies in motion.  Gross motor actions are mostly conscious and mostly subject to voluntary control.  Contemporary research indicates that many facial expressions are not easily subject to voluntary control except by well trained actors.  Awareness of one’s own and other’s body postures is one aspect of actions.  For some people body posture is unconscious, and for others, like actors, it is a matter of conscious control. 

Adding the psychological dimensions of perception and meaning making helps understand our interaction with the world more completely.  How we perceive and how we make meaning is based on our previous perceptions, on our social capital, on our cultural capital, and on a myriad of other factors including what is in the environment to be perceived.  Objects, phenomenon, people, and actions in the environment around us are all perceived and meaning is made of these objects, phenomenon, people, and actions.  This is largely unconscious; however contemporary research shows us how individuals can modify their perceptions and meaning making through awareness and training. 

Learning how to perceive consciously and make meaning consciously are central to class consciousness.

Theory in action

Exploring the question of the social status of the hotel maid supervisor helps to understand the usefulness of this model.  Her social class is a function of the interaction between her self (person), her perceptions and meaning making (behavior) within a specific context (environment).  Change the environment and you change the interaction.  Meeting with people she supervises in the basement and meeting with people who supervise her in an upstairs meeting room are different environments with different effects on her perception and meaning making which in turn affect her current felt social class.  The environment determines how she acts and feels and thinks in each setting.  Her current felt social class (what she thinks about hers self) and her attributed social class (what others think about her) both vary according to her environment.  In this interaction view social class is dynamic. 

To assert that social class is occupational prestige or educational attainment is to assert that social class is based solely on cultural capital.  To assert that social class is world view, that it is solely about perception and meaning making, is to assert that social class is only about psychological behavior.  To assert that social class is about groups of people classified together is to assert that social class is solely about the environment. 

Acquiring a college degree, part of cultural capital, changes your social class, and changes social class in the context of your behaviors and your environment.  Your environment affects your social class identity.  Your self-concept is one thing if you have a degree from The University of Iowa in a room of Harvard graduates.  Your self-concept is something else if you have a degree from The University of Iowa in a room of Northwest Missouri State University graduates.  Prestige is relative and social class is dynamic.

What’s your social class?  Your social class is an interaction between you, your environment, and your behavior.  As you change personally, your social class changes.  As your behavior changes, your social class changes.  As your environment changes your social class changes.  You affect your environment through your behavior and your environment affects you through your perceptions and meaning makings in a constant state of dynamic interaction. 

Static single variable definitions of social class are effective within a single paradigm. Static single variable definitions of social class inadequate when working with multiple paradigms of social class.  The real world is complex and messy and requires definitions that capture an appropriate amount of that mess as a way to help make sense of social class and the world.


Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44, 1175-1184.
Barratt, W., Burrow, H., Kendrick, C., Parrott, J., & Tippin, K. (2003, March). Client and Counselor SES: Issues and Applications. Paper presented at American Counseling Association, Anaheim, CA.
Barratt, W. (2011). Social class on campus: Theories and manifestations. Sterling, VA: Stylus
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. R. (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood Press.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

I want thank to Karen Buchholz for creating the graphic based on my vague directions and ugly sketch.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Social Class Consciousness on Campus

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

I often feel that I grew along with the various consciousness movements; women’s consciousness, black consciousness, political consciousness, men’s consciousness, and the many other consciousness movements that have emerged in the past 60 years.  I have always appreciated these movements because they add important dimensions to our lives.  With the rise of each movement, and with its maturing, discussions become more and more interesting, the body politic gets more complicated, and the world gets a little more inclusive as each group claims more consciousness.  Defining ourselves through increased consciousness has become part of every movement.  Class consciousness, like other forms of consciousness, is individual.  It is about you and it is about me.

Twice in my life I have lived in countries that were nominally Communist; Budapest, Hungary in 1987-1988 and Beijing, People’s Republic of China in 1995-1996.  Communist rhetoric, especially about social class, was a background hum for both of these experiences.  Class consciousness surfaced most often when I was discussing education with campus colleagues.  Class consciousness was part of their world view, part of their ideology, part of their practice, and part of their lives.  A Hungarian colleague was given a place in his university class because of his proletariat background – affirmative action for the proletariat.  Because of this class based advantage in his early life his class consciousness got a huge jump start. A Chinese colleague was sent into the country side with his family for re-education because his father had a photograph of a Swedish missionary who had taught him English as a child.  This Chinese colleague’s first school experience was when he stepped onto a college campus as a first year student in his 30s. Attributed social class kept this colleague out of the educational system until he was in his 30s, making class consciousness a foreground feature during his life. Attributed social class played a large part in the lives of these people. Communist rhetoric, education, and media pushed for a certain sort of class consciousness.

Students going to college in the US don't have these experiences. Class consciousness and class awareness are well in the background.  At most the typical US college first year student is aware that social class has something to do with money.  If they have been paying attention to the current news they are aware of income disparity between the 1% and the 99%, but this is a different level of class consciousness than being sent to the country side for re-education. 

In the US, and certainly on US college campuses, we don’t have any sort of push for class consciousness.  While “First Generation Students” are the shiny new minority on campus the recognition of this new social class minority has not led to any emphasis on exploring social class on campus.  This is a similar pattern to the recognition of ethnic minority students that does not lead to any exploration of ethnic majority students.  Consciousness in the US is for members of minorities, not for members of majorities.

I would argue that most of the class consciousness that occurs on campus comes can be seen in the members of campus social class minorities and comes from their contrast with the social class majority on campus.  That contrast initiated social class consciousness is a start.  There are types and levels of class consciousness.  More complexly, where you start determines your path to consciousness.  Working Class / Poverty Class students on campus will begin the journey to class consciousness from their social class world view and from the consciousness that comes from experiencing social class contrast on campus.  The majority class student on campus, child of college educated parents, has no contrast on campus to push the beginning of the journey to class consciousness.  The reality is that the majority class student on campus has been set up to be isolated from social class contrast, to live in a bubble that prevents social class consciousness.  This isolation may be intentional, but the forces of evil inhibiting class consciousness are more probably grounded in ignorance than in maliciousness.

So, how do we initiate discussions about class consciousness among the majority class student?  How do we challenge their assumptions of their social class normality?  How do we help them to realize that they are members of a minority social class group in the US and are in the majority on campus?

The answer is simple – start a discussion.  Getting social class out into the open is the first step.  Social class consciousness is a long journey with many steps, like all other forms of consciousness. 

A level of social class consciousness is an interesting idea and is one way to think about developing increasing consciousness.  Below are two endpoints on a scale of social class consciousness from 0 to 10.  For an interesting exercise, fill in descriptions for the levels in the middle.  What are the waypoints along the journey?  What marks a step forward in consciousness for you?

Level 0
Denial – “We really don’t have social class in the US.”
Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4

Level 5

Level 6

Level 7

Level 8

Level 9

Level 10
Full Social Class Consciousness - I know that social class is about cultural, social, and economic capital, identity, culture, and is also about many other factors.  I know that social class is personal, social, and economic.  I recognize the privilege I have based on my social class of origin, current felt social class, and attributed social class.  I recognize the social class market and population segmenting in the US.  I recognize how social class is reproduced by social, political, media, and economic institutions.  I advocate for minimizing the disadvantaging and advantaging of people based on social class groups.  I understand different national and cultural contexts for social class.  I recognize that my consciousness requires action. 

Your notion of class consciousness may go all the way to 11.  Great.  For me Level 10 requires constant work to maintain as the new things you learn are integrated with what you already know. 

Whatever you do, start a conversation about social class. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Social class in English language movies

I was asked recently to help identify a few movies in which social class plays a significant part.  While there are many, here is a short list (with dates) of some movies that I know.  Some go back a ways, like My Man Godfrey (1936), and some are more contemporary, like Crash (2004).

Feel free to add movies to this list by sending in a comment. I am sure there are many more films from around the world that contain social class as a significant theme, so with your help we can create a more global list.

An Officer and a Gentleman 1982
Breakfast Club 1985
Breaking Away 1979 
Clueless 1995
Crash 2004
Down and Out in Beverly Hills 1986 
Driving Miss Daisy 1989
Educating Rita 1983 
Erin Brockovich 2000 
Five Easy Pieces 1970
Good Will Hunting 1997
Gosford Park 2001 
Great Gatsby 1974
Hoop Dreams 1994
In Time 2011 (Courtesy of Emma Mentley)
Love Story1970 
My Fair Lady 1964
My Man Godfrey 1936
Mystic Pizza 1988 
Norma Rae 1979 
Ordinary People  1980
Pretty in Pink 1986 
Pretty Woman 1990
Rocky I 1976
School Daze 1988
Sense and Sensibility 1995
Six Degrees of Separation 1993 
Slums of Beverly Hills 1998
Swept Away 2002, 1974
The Graduate 1967
The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999 
Titanic 1997 
Trading Places 1983
Wall Street 1987 
Working Girl 1988

I want to thank David Seiler who helped get the dates for many of these. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Multiple Social Class Lenses and Concepts

Will Barratt

As I move forward in my thinking about social class on campus I have occasion to revisit some past thoughts and writings.  This makes me realize that some people will be starting to read about class now, and that I need to reprise some basic notions.  Toward that end, here is a primer on multiple ways to think about social class and a few key concepts to use when working with social class on campus.

Abstract and personal paradigms for class
There are two primary ways that social class appears in the literature: First that social class is abstract.  Second that social class is personal.  The idea that social class is personal doesn’t yet have much literature, but that area is growing.  These are two very different approaches to social class, and both are very useful.  As a professor I appreciate the abstract, the generalization, the simplification of combining the many into the one.  On the other hand, none of my students and none of my colleagues are an abstract, they are people.  I appreciate the personal view of social class also.  Obviously a combination of personal and abstract views of class will give us a richer and more complete view.

Two abstract views of social class
There are two primary schools of thought dealing with the abstract idea of social class: First is sociological.  Second is economic.  Again, both of these have contributions to make and insights into social class.  Looking at aggregations of people, at societies, leads to certain types of abstractions.  Looking at aggregations of people, at economies, leads to other types of abstractions.  I am sure there are more lenses also.

Even within the economic models of social class there are all manner of ways to examine it.  Macroeconomic and microeconomic models of social class come to mind.  Even within sociology multiple models of social class come to mind, systemic, structural, and interpersonal models.  There are more economic and sociological lenses also.

Six personal views of social class
There is no definitive list of personal views of class.  I propose six views of social class as personal:  Class as capital, class as identity, class as culture, class as enacted role, class as educational attainment, and finally class as occupation.  While I am sure there are more, this is a good and mostly inclusive list.  One advantage of this list is that most of us can remember six things.

Social class as capital.  Bourdieu’s (1986) enumerates three forms of capital as he expanded on the traditional Marxist view of economic capital by adding cultural capital and social capital.  His article is short and well worth reading so I will not repeat his words here.  A moment’s reflection comes up with some of the limits of his list of three forms of capital.  This is akin to recognizing the limitations of six ways to think about social class as personal.  Other forms of capital are context specific, like academic capital, or leadership capital, or even spiritual capital.  All forms of capital are important. 

One issue that I have with Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural and social capital is that there is prestige cultural capital and prestige social capital, as well as non-prestige cultural capital, and non-prestige social capital.  Prestige cultural capital reflects the knowledge, skills, and trappings of the prestige class, and non-prestige cultural capital reflects the knowledge, skills, and trappings of the underclass.  Similarly, social capital is class bound.  Knowing people who can help you with your financial portfolio is different than knowing people who can help you fix your car.  Both your financial portfolio, if you have one, and your car, if you have one, are important.  It is just that a financial portfolio has higher prestige.

Social class as identity.  We each 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 about us.  As with gender identity and ethnic identity our social class of origin identity formed early at home and in the social settings we were in as children.  Our current felt social class reflects the experience we have had with social class and in our ability to compare ourselves to others.  While most college students will identify as middle class, this is probably not the appropriate social class identity for those who, if they graduate, will be among the 30% most well educated people in the US.  If they have a graduate degree they are then among the 10% most well educated in the US, and are nowhere near the middle of the educational attainment distribution.  One of the challenges for members of the majority social class on campus is creating a realistic current felt social class based on awareness and knowledge of the other social classes in the US.

Social class as culture.  Cultures, and subcultures, share norms, expectations, values, and many more things.  Social class can be seen as a collection of sub-cultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige.  Recent research has indicated clear cultural differences between social class groups.  A trip to the three tiers of grocery stores or restaurants in a midsized city will illustrate this point better than 1000 words.  Kraus, Piff, and Keltner recently (2011) published a piece titled Social class as culture: The convergence of resources and rank in the social realm which includes a great array of material from a social-psychological perspective on social class as culture.

Social class as enacted role.  This comes from Irving Goffman (1959) and the idea that any social role has dialog, blocking, costumes, and stage dressing.  Social classes each have distinct features, and fashion, or costumes, is an easy way to see the differences in enacted role.  International Suit Up Day, October 13, is appropriate costuming holiday for a small range of social classes. Similarly big box discount stores have costumes, or uniforms, appropriate for their clientele, as well as stage dressings, or rather home furnishings.  Similarly there are more prestigious varieties of English and less prestigious varieties of English that guide our dialogs and monologs.

Social class as educational attainment.  Members of the majority social class in the US do not have a college degree.  While half of US citizens over 25 have some experience in college, and about 10% have an Associate’s Degree, the college educated minority who have a degree have the prestige.  Add on graduate and professional degrees and you have a hierarchy of social class.  In reality the minority who is college educated normalizes that world view.  What is not normal must be abnormal, deviant, bad, or negative in some way.

Social class as occupation.  Some of the first work I found on measuring social class was from August Hollingshead (1975) and involved educational attainment and occupational prestige.  I updated his work with some more modern research on occupational prestige, but the central point remains: Occupations are prestige ranked.  Ganzeboom and Treiman (1996) have a list that provides an international perspective on occupational prestige rankings.

Four Key Concepts

Measuring social class. 
Some models of class, like income, educational attainment, and occupational prestige are easy to measure, and others like identity and culture are not.  Because income, education, and occupation are easy to measure, they get measured.  In some ways this biases definitions of social class toward those measurable views of social class, ignoring identity, culture, role, and even ignoring other forms of capital.  

The idea of prestige, while it can be measured and is often measured inadvertently in college rankings, is often omitted when taking the measure of social class.  Prestige is in some ways a synonym for social class.  Prestige goods like handbags with designer labels known to be expensive and therefore prestigious are a good example.  Occupations are ranked by social scientists into a hierarchy of prestige.  Asking “How prestigious is this?” is the same as asking “What social class is this?”

Below are three ways to quantify social class with easily counted and measured concepts related to social class.  You can use this to calculate your social class of origin by ranking your parents, or you can use this to calculate your attributed social class by using your own data.  There are five social class groups numbered 1 through 5, so feel free to assign whatever names you want.  You may not, in good conscience, refer to the top group using any term like middle or upper-middle. 

This material below is not that different that the material from the New York Times that is available at:

Use the three tables below to calculate the social status for your family of origin or your own attributed social class.  The data below are based on a US population.

Annual Family Income Groups.  Estimated combined parental income.  People in single parent households are at an obvious disadvantage. US Census 2009, Table F-1

Lowest 20%

Middle 20%

Highest 20%
Under $26,934
$26,934 to $47,913
$47,914 to 73,338
$73,339 to $112,540
Over $112,540

Educational Attainment Groups.  Calculate for the most well educated parent.  US Census 2010, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2010 – Detailed Tables, population over 25


No High School Diploma


High School Diploma

Some college, no degree




PhD, MD, or JD

Occupational Prestige Groups.  Calculate for the highest prestige parental occupation. If you do not find your parent(s) occupation then please select something similar.

Physician, attorney, professor, chemical and aerospace engineer, judge, CEO, senior manager, public official, psychologist, pharmacist, accountant.
5  - Top
Mechanical, nuclear, and electrical engineer,  educational administrator, veterinarian, military officer, elementary, high school and special education teacher,
Nurse, skilled technician, medical technician, counselor, manager, police and fire personnel, financial manager, physical, occupational, speech therapist.
Supervisor, librarian, aircraft mechanic, artist and artisan, electrician, administrator, military enlisted personnel, buyer.
Machinist, musician, bookkeeper, secretary, insurance sales, cabinet maker, personnel specialist, welder. 
3 - Middle
Automobile mechanic, typist, locksmith, farmer, carpenter, receptionist, construction laborer, hairdresser.
Painter, skilled construction trade, sales clerk, truck driver, cook, sales counter or general office clerk.
Garbage collector, short-order cook, cab driver, shoe sales, assembly line workers, masons, baggage porter.
Day laborer, janitor, house cleaner, farm worker, food counter sales, food preparation worker, busboy.
1 - Bottom

(Income + Education + Occupation) divided by 3 ______

Social class contrast
The fish that lives entirely in water may have no knowledge of that water.  A fish that spends any time at all in the air understands the existence of water based on the contrast with the air.  Similarly students who have lived in a social class bubble all of their lives will not have experienced social class contrast.  Consequently, they may think themselves middle class when in fact they would rank in the 5 category on the scales above.

Students whose parents have little or no experience in higher education are at risk because of the discomfort they feel on campus based on social class contrast.  Research tells us that these students graduate at half the rate of students with college educated parents.

Students whose parents have experience in higher education come to campus with all manner of advantage and privilege.  The risk for them is that they are the majority social class and experience little in the way of social class contrast.  Further complicating this is first generation students seeking to class pass or blend in or assimilate in order to appear to be like majority social class students.  This further normalizes the majority social class on campus.  The risk for these students is that the lack of contrast will warp their world view so that it does not include the majority of US citizens with no experience in college and no college education. 

Multiple ways to be in the same social class
There are multiple ways to be in the same social class.  Astin’s (1993) college student typologies, or any of the other college student typologies, are ways to describe different students in the same group.  Using my favorite example of Misty and Markey from the majority class on campus there is fashionable Misty, athletic Misty, academic Misty, and so on.  In your social class subculture athletic Misty may be more prestigious, and in mine academic Misty may be more prestigious.  I value culture capital, so I value academic Misty.

Class is inherently a hierarchy, gender, ethnicity, and GLBT are not
A classic way to pursue multicultural education is to have students realize that there is not a hierarchy among genders, between heterosexual students and GLBT students, between men and women, etc.  Unfortunately the nature of social class is a hierarchy, so traditional methods of multicultural education will not work.  While students learn that all cultures are equivalent, and social class is a culture, the culture of scarcity and the culture of plenty are different in important and hierarchical ways.

What can you do?
You can spread awareness of social class on your campus, in your life, and at your work.  The multicultural industry is mostly fixated on gender, on ethnicity, on sexual orientation, and sometimes on religion.  When students come to campus they have been exposed to many hours of multicultural programming.  When students leave campus they have, we hope, been exposed to many hours of multicultural programming.  Understanding and working positively with our differences is a good thing, it is the heart of democracy and the meaning of “E Pluribus Unum”.

As awareness of gender issues, of ethnic issues, of sexuality issues is key, so is awareness of social class.  While we may keenly feel the injuries of gender, ethnic, and sexuality discrimination, the injuries of class are deep and lasting and happen like the unfelt cuts from a sharp blade.


Astin, A. W. (1993). An empirical typology of college students. Journal of College Student Development, 34, 36-46

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. R. (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood Press.

Goffman, E (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life New York: Doubleday

Ganzebook, H. B. G., & Treiman, D. J. (1996). Internationally comparable measures of occupational status for the 1988 International Standard Classifications of Occupations. Social Science Research, 25, 201-239.

Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. New Haven, CT: Unpublished manuscript. Department of Sociology, Yale University.

Kraus, M. W., Piff, P. K., & Kelter, D. (2011). Social class as culture: The convergence of resources and rank in the social realm. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), DOI: 10.1177/0963721411414654

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Why is social class important?

Will Barratt

Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

"Why is social class important?" is a great question.  In a podcast interview with Stu Brown (  he started with that question and I was not ready for it.  It took me a while to come up with a good answer.

Why this question gets asked, and why this question doesn’t get asked are two interlocking pieces of the puzzle.

I will not ask why social class is important if I am unaware of the day-to-day issues of social class in my life and in the lives of people around me.  Awareness is the key here. 

Ask yourself these three questions:
1)      Why is gender important?
2)      Why is ethnicity important?
3)   Why is GLBT important?

Now ask yourself why social class is important.  The answers to these four questions should be similar.  Gender, ethnicity, GLBT, and social class are important in our lives and in the lives of people around us.

Now ask yourself why so many people are asking, talking, and writing about gender, ethnicity, and GLBT, and so few people are asking, talking, and writing about social class.

Research shows us that social class, as defined by parental income and education, is the best predictor of whether or not high school students go to college, where they go to college, and if they graduate from college.  This social class predictor works for men, for women, and for every tracked ethnic minority status.  The US Census Bureau ( has great collections of data on college attendance by ethnicity and gender ( that can be compared with income and ethnicity tables (

Social class is a better predictor of college attendance and success than is gender.  Women attend college and graduate from college at higher rates than do men.  Even accounting for small numbers of women in STEM professions, gender is a weak, but positive predictor of college attendance and success in the US.

Ethnicity and social class are linked in some interesting ways in the US.  Not all poor and uncolleged people are ethnic minorities and not all ethnic minorities are poor and uncolleged.  The truth is that each identifiable ethnic minority group in the US can be arranged in a hierarchy of college attendance and graduation rates that are closely tied to parental income and educational attainment.  Look at the US Census Bureau data links above. This is sociological and economic data on groups of people.  Every day I teach and talk with individual exceptions to this rule, but I do not talk with the people not on my campus, who would confirm this rule.  Based on abstract sociological and economic models, ethnicity is a real, but weak predictor of college attendance and success.  We can statistically subtract the effect of parental income and education from ethnicity, and the effect of ethnicity remains important, though not huge.

The reasons above for the importance of social class focus on us on the challenges faced by first generation students on campus.  What about the challenges faced by the second generation student on campus?

75% of students on campus come from 30% of the US population.  30% of the US adults have a college degree, or higher.  I cannot find data on how many mothers and fathers in dual parent households both have a degree, so I will be make the mistake of overestimating the percent of US households with either parent having a college degree.  75% of our students on our campus come from homes in which there was probably an expectation to attend college and graduate.   Again, the “probably” comes in because there is very little national data on family expectations of college attendance and parental education. 

Social class is critical for the first generation student and their experiences on campus.  I would venture to suggest, without data, that social class contrast is one of the main reasons that first generation students do not persist on campus to graduation. 

Social class is also critical for the majority student, the 75% coming from homes with at least one college graduate.  The reason for the importance of social class is not college success, but humanity.  If students don’t become aware of social class and confront it in the same way they confront gender, ethnicity, and GLBT issues their ignorance of social class will lead them to be less effective in the workplace and as citizens.  The level of publicized ignorance about income, insurance, and education during this political season is one effect of failing to learn about social class. 

Democracy is about both the majority and the minority.  In the case of the US the majority of citizens do not have a college education and have had a declining income recently (look at the US Census Bureau income data).  The minority, the college or graduate educated individual who makes and enforces the rules remain ignorant of class in the US.  If you are not interested in democracy, then ignore social class.

keywords: social class personal diversity college

New Post - The students guide to becoming upper-middle class

Friday, September 23, 2011

Social Class Book Publishing

Will Barratt

I am new to the book writing world and business, so every part of the process of writing, editing, and selling my new book has been fascinating to me.  While I believe that my topic is important and that the book should required reading in every diversity class, I also recognize that others don’t agree.  I suspect that people avoid the book the same way they avoid talking about social class.

I get the occasional positive email from colleagues and others who have read it and like it, but overall the response has been underwhelming.  Perhaps the book is like The Princess Bride.  The movie did not do well at the box office, but over 25 years has become a classic.  Perhaps not.

I have become very interested in the Amazon page for my book because it shows me my rank.  In July I ranked in the top 1,000,000, in late August I ranked in the top 200,000, and seem to have settled at around 400,000 to 500,000.  The August boom was for the fall semester of book orders. 

For me, the interesting part of the Amazon data is the section “Customers who bought this item also bought”  I can recognize many books required by my colleagues like Identity Development of Diverse Populations, and Multiculturalism on Campus.  It is the odd ones, the books I don’t recognize, that puzzle me.  Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture puzzles me.  My response is to add another book to my reading list.

I started writing with a specific audience in mind.  John von Knorring , my publisher at Stylus who understands books, text, information, and media on a very deep level, suggested that I write the book for a larger audience.  He was right.  I had been reading on a wide level so why not write to a larger audience.  I had been consuming blogs like Social Class & Quakers by N. Jeanne Burns (, and Education and Class by Jane Van Galen (, so why not write to a larger audience.  I had been reading books like Tearing Down the Gates (Peter Sacks), Higher Education and Social Class (Louise Archer, Merryn Hutchings and Alistair Ross), and The Psychology of Social Class (Michael Argyle), so why not write to a larger audience.

The question of course is how large the audience is.  Is there no audience for topics on social class or is it that people don’t want to confront social class in the US?  Those writing on social class comprise a small group, especially exploring social class as a personal characteristic rather than an economic or sociological trend.  Those reading about social class also seem to comprise a small group.  Apathy, satisfaction, and intentional disinterest all have the same behavioral consequence.  Is it that people read about ethnicity and gender because they don’t want to read about social class?

My publisher tells me that if you are a faculty member that you can get an exam copy if you are thinking about adding the book to your reading list for a class.
If you want to buy a copy after reading some of my blogs, then you can get a 20% discount using the code WBBLOG at the checkout:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stars, winners, special people, losers, and hierarchy: How social class is different from gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of difference.

Will Barratt

When Kurt Vonnegut received the Eugene V. Debs award in 1981 he spoke about how people divided the world into stars and bit players. 

Sheldon Kopp, writing in If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him notes that when you make someone special you diminish yourself, and conversely when you make yourself special you diminish others.

The single index finger pointing upward meaning “We’re number one” may be the most obscene gesture in the world because it means that everyone else is a loser, second place, an also ran.  It overtly states a hierarchy with the gesticulator in a superior position.

The L for Loser gesture with the thumb and forefinger placed on the forehead is used by adolescents of all ages to indicate that you are a loser, and therefore I am a winner.

Social class is about hierarchy, about being a star, winning, and being special.  Gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of diversity are about difference, about belonging to some category. 

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of stars and bit players, special and not so special people, and winners and losers are part of what creates social hierarchy or social class.  I would hazard a guess that the nature of hierarchy is part of the nature of the human experience.  Yes, hierarchy is evil, wretched, and creates an overclass and an underclass.  Yes, hierarchy is all around us and is co-created and re-created every day by every one of us.

I am suggesting that social class is different from gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of human difference because the inherent hierarchical nature of social class is fundamentally different from the inherent non-hierarchical nature of gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of human difference. Most diversity is about categories like male and female, European-American and African-American, and so on.  Of course a close look at these categories reveals the truth that the boundaries between categories are not always clear, and that the categories are not always mutually exclusive.  In spite of these problems with categories, they remain categories.  Categories do not constitute a hierarchy.  My measurement colleagues will notice that this is the distinction between categorical or nominal variables, like gender, and ordinal variables, like how much money you have.

Winning, Losing, and Hierarchies

How do we determine star status, number one status, special status, and winner status?  Therein is an interesting question.  Among a league of ten college football teams playing against each other on a Fall Saturday, five of the teams will win and five will lose, not counting potential ties.  The team with the most season wins is number one.  Professional sports teams have regular and post season play, eventually one team emerges as the winner and all others sink into the media abyss of losers.  This winner and loser status is based on direct data.  Determining the superior team when teams don’t play is not based on direct data.  “Well the players in the xxx conference are tougher, meaner, taller, faster,  . . . so they are superior”.  Once there is no direct data, then arguments based on unexamined assumptions break out.

There are data-based hierarchies, for example standings of college teams within a league, and non-data-based hierarchies, for example standings of college teams between leagues.  But, you say, between-league comparisons are based on data too.  No, I say.  Comparisons between leagues may use quantitative metrics, for example yards per play, completed passes, and whatnot for US Football, all of that data was created within a specific league context and cannot be used for comparison between leagues.  I suggest that sports pundits use the data in a way designed to confound and confuse the comparisons, to act as a distraction, to act as the illusion of quantitative certainty, when in fact between-league predictions in sports is a matter of unsubstantiated belief.  Within-league team comparisons are a matter of head to head competition – literally.  Between-league team comparisons are matters bereft of fact and are consequently matters of belief.

Winning, Losing, and Social Class

What has this all got to do with social class?  “Everything” to quote Yoda. 

Data views of social class, that class is personal income, use the direct evidence of income hierarchies to equate with social class hierarchies.  Personal Income hierarchy= Social Class hierarchy.  That is; PIh=SCh.  That sounds scientific doesn’t it?  Income is a nice metric, a nice way to measure something.  I make $20 and you make $18.  I win, you lose.  I am a star, you are a bit part player.  I am number one, you are a loser.  It would be nice if social class was that simple.  The metrics of income and wealth alone are not enough to capture the reality of personal social class.

Bourdieu, in Forms of Capital, notes that the idea of economic capital, income and wealth, can be supplemented with the ideas of social capital and cultural capital.  Forms of capital all have the advantage of being, more or less, quantified.  That is, I have more than you, or you have more than me.  This capital-based idea is a more nuanced view of social class than money alone, but is not a full and complete view of social class.  Capital can create a nice hierarchy, but that hierarchy misses many elements of personal social class reality.  On first glance the quantity of economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital keep everyone in the same league, so all of the comparisons are within-league.  In reality not everyone plays in the same league.  You can have high prestige cultural capital, for example knowing a pinot noir from a pinotage, and / or you can have low prestige cultural capital, for example knowing the standings for NASCAR. You can have high prestige social capital, being able to form allegiances with people who have power and money and / or you can have low prestige social capital, being able to form allegiances with people who have tools to work on your house or car.

Another direct evidence view of social class is educational attainment.  Educational Attainment hierarchy=Social Class hierarcy, or EAh=SCh.  I have a Ph.D. and you have a M.S.. I win, you lose, etc.  This gets complicated when you add the non-data-based prestige values of various undergraduate or graduate schools, and factor in the prestige hierarchy of disciplines.  Is a Math degree from Door Prairie State University equivalent to an English degree from an Ivy League /   Seven Sisters college?  Prestige is largely data free when it comes to educational institutions and disciplines.  The research on college rankings tells us that rankings are either about perceived prestige of the faculty or about student and institutional income.  Neither source of rankings has to do with how well the faculty members teach the students.

Values Hierarchies and Social Class

Income, capital of many sorts, and educational attainment are the primary data based comparisons that can be made about personal social class.  The assumption is that more is better.  The idea that more is better is a value judgment.  Money, capital, and educational attainment are a won/lost record in personal social class, and winning in these metrics of social class is generally thought to be better than losing in these metrics or social class.  Other ways to talk about social class have no data that can be arranged in a hierarchy of more and less.  

While income, educational attainment, and capital are quantifiable ways to explore personal social class, social class as identity in no way lends itself to quantitative or qualitative differences that allow ranking in a hierarchy.  Suggesting that one identity is better than another is a bold statement of values based on no data whatsoever.  The lack of data does not curtail irrational assertions that people who have a higher class identity are better than people who have a lower class identity.  Irrational beliefs about gender, about ethnicity, and about GLBTQ are all too common and are too often clouded with questionable and misapplied quantitative data.  These data-free beliefs are probably held as a consequence of identity and ego expressions. 

Viewing personal social class as culture, as shared values and norms, in no way leads to a data-based hierarchy.  No culture is better or worse than yours in any countable that does not rely on unsubstantiated values.  Suggesting a hierarchy of cultures, of values and norms shared by groups of people, is bereft of common sense.  It is not uncommon to hear value-based data-free statements asserting that higher class culture is better than lower class culture.

Social class as prestige is interesting because prestige is collective belief and not quantifiable.  While collective belief is quantifiable, we can survey 1000 people on their beliefs about the prestige ratings and rankings of various name brands, the actual prestige itself is not quantifiable.  Things are prestige only because people believe they are prestige.  While it is often believed that Expensive object = Quality object = Prestige object, EO=QO=PO, this tautology is not confirmed by research even though the formula does look scientific.  Please note that formulas with subscripts are more prestigious than formulas without subscripts.  Cost and quality are related and quality and prestige are related, and cost and prestige are related, but the relationships are weak.  Prestige is usually a matter of marketing.  Do $100 sunglasses protect my eyes better than $10 dollar sunglasses?  Or is my metric of protecting my eyes the wrong metric?  Do $100 sunglasses have more “cool” than $10 sunglasses? 

Working with Social Class as a Hierarchy

Gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of diversity are about difference, about belonging to some category.  Social class is about hierarchy.  While some of the hierarchy behind social class is quantitative, like money, most of the social class hierarchy is irrational and data free.

Working with gender, ethnicity, GLBTQ, and other forms of difference is often about reducing and removing the ideas of hierarchy that people have generated about these differences.  Working with social class requires a wholly different approach, because hierarchy is part of the nature of social class.  Exploring the nature of our irrational creations of hierarchy is the beginning of a way to reduce the injustice of social class.