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

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