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.