Sunday, March 04, 2012

Gender, ethnicity, and Social Class: Which is more important?

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Which is more important, gender, ethnicity, or social class?  You can add any of your primary identities to that question.  You can create a ranked list of identity importance if you want.  However, before you write that list you need to think about a few things.

What do you mean by important

In the long run, some things will be more important than others.  In the short run, some things will be more important than others.  

Are you interested in what is important to you?  Are you interested in what is important to others?

Are you interested in statistical trends?  Are you interested in messy every-day exceptions?

I am a person and I am interested in the dailyness of life.  For me, this means exploring how my identities play out moment to moment and day to day in my life.  For me, this means exploring my interactions with other people.  Yes, I know that my identities affect what and how I perceive, think, and act when I am alone, but I want to explore important and to me that is the interpersonal environment. 

So, which is more important in the interpersonal environment; gender, ethnicity, or social class?  

I need to look at both sides of any interaction - social class as important to me and social class as important to the person I am interacting with - for convenience a two person system is a good place to start. From my side there is my gender and their gender, my ethnicity and their ethnicity, my social class and their social class in the interaction. Similarly, the other person has the same considerations.  A two person system gets complicated quickly.

In the interaction between you and me in this two person system the question comes back; Important for what?

Well, the good news is that a lot of people have researched the interpersonal interaction world and found a consistent pattern.  These references are all dated, probably because the research questions got answered.  

Carter (1954) found two principal interpersonal factors and a group facilitation factor; Individual prominence and achievement (which corresponds to power), Sociability (which corresponds to love-hate or support) and a third factor particular to the research conducted; aiding attainment by the group (a group facilitation factor as Carter was studying group behaviors).  Leary (1957), in research setting the basis for the diagnosis of personality through interpersonal behavior, found two principal factors; Love-Hate (support) and Dominance-Submission (power).  Borgatta, Cottrell and Mann (1958) found two principal factors concerning relations and three minor factors; Individual Assertiveness (power), Sociability (love-hate), Manifest Intelligence, Task Interest and Manifest Emotionality.  Schutz (1958), in the original development of his FIRO instrument found what he labeled Control, Affection, and Inclusion, which later became the scales on the FIRO-B.  Schaeffer (1956) studied maternal behavior and concluded that "two major dimensions of maternal behavior can be isolated in all studies; these can be labeled Love vs. Hostility and Autonomy vs. Control".  Finally, Foa (1961) determined that there were two principal factors of interpersonal relations; Dominance-Submission and Love-Hostility.

Notice the pattern?  A simple answer is that interpersonal relations, based on this factor analytic research, can be described using three primary variables:  Power, Task Orientation, and Support.

So, is gender, ethnicity, or social class more important for power, task orientation, and support in the interpersonal world?  A good question is hard to come by and for me this is a good question.

Social class is social status and social status is a source of power, at least it is one among several sources is power.  Social status can also be seen as a measure of power.

Which identity is most important for power?  Well, gender, and ethnicity, and height, and attractiveness have all been shown to affect the power dynamics in relationships.  Note please that these are observable sources of status, unlike religion or sexual orientation.

Here is your quest:  As you go through a typical day pay attention to what most affects the power in interpersonal relations during the day.  Also pay attention to the task dimension, and to the support dimension.  Does your gender affect the power in the interactions more than your social class?  Daily interactions are messy, which is what makes this such a good problem, and separating out what affects what is tough.  Isolating social class status from work authority status is hard, so try to pay attention to how you interact with peers of the same gender.

I have had many people over the years follow this quest.  The overwhelming answer is that power comes from social status and social class much more than it does from gender and ethnicity.  I have not collected this as data, sorry.

So in the limited question of which is more important in interpersonal interaction, using power, task orientation, and support as variables, that social class is the most important.


Borgatta, E. F., Cotterell, L. S., & Mann, J. M. (1958). The spectrum of individual interaction characteristics: An interdimensional analysis. Psychological Reports, 4, 279-319.
Carter, L.F. (1954). Evaluating the performance of individuals as members of small groups. Personnel Psychology, 7, 477-484.
Foa, U. G. (1961). Convergences in the analysis of the structure of interpersonal behavior. Psychological Review, 68, 341-353.
Leary, T. (1957). Interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York: Ronald Press.
Schaefer, E. S. (1956). A circumplex model for maternal behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 226-235.
Schutz, W. C. (1958). FIRO: A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

keywords: power social class status gender ethnicity

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