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.