Friday, October 19, 2012

Middle-Class Values

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Coffman Distinguished Professor, Bayh College of Education, Indiana State University

The phrase middle-class values gets frequently used and infrequently specified.  What values are unique to members of this group?  What values do members of the middle class have that other classes don’t? 

The US Middle Class

In the 2008 Pew study Insidethe middle class: Bad times hit the good life people were asked place themselves in one of five socioeconomic categories.  This is a good research technique and a good way to avoid some of the traps of defining social class.  Participant’s answers were revealing: 91% of participants think of themselves as some variety of middle class. 

Pew Responses
Pew Combinations
Pew Categories
Upper Class
Middle class
Middle Class
Lower Class
Don’t know / Refused

The researchers at Pew, I assume in order to have an interesting study, combined the categories in a questionable way.  This is questionable social science.  Ideally all five categories should have been used in the analysis, but in the sample above there are very few Upper class and Lower class individuals.  If categories were combined then a researcher has several choices, and the Pew researchers chose to combine the Upper-middle class with the Upper class and to combine the Lower-middle class with the Lower class.  The 2% (48 of the 2413 people in the study) who identified as upper class had their results overwhelmed by the 19% (458 people) who identified as upper-middle class.  Similarly, the 6% (145 people) who identified as lower class had their results overwhelmed by the 19% (458 people) lower-middle class results. 
Combined in a different way, 91% of respondents self-identify as some variety (upper, middle, lower) of middle class.  The whole study describes the middle class when you combine the three middle class groups in this way, which is how I choose to read the results.

What does this have to do with middle class values?  If you agree that people can self-assign their social class then you then have a personal identity model of social class.  If the researchers had assigned people to classes based on occupation, education, and income, like the NY Times in Class Matters, then you would have a different model of social class that reflected certain assumptions about hierarchies of occupation, education, and income.

People’s identifications of their class reflect those things, behaviors, or values that they believe are associated with social class.  The Pew study asked people about their things, behaviors, and values, and then linked those back to how people self-identified.  Using their questionably combined social class categories the study found some distinctions between their three groups.  This is a good research technique, except if you have made questionable decisions about social class categories.

Combining the groups into the 91% middle class then middle class values are:
  • Upward mobility – people with more money report more mobility than those without money and everyone reports that mobility is harder now than before.
  • Having homes – people have been purchasing larger and more expensive homes
  • Having stuff – people with more money have more consumer goods
  • Having free time – everyone wants more
  • Having children
  • Having a successful career
  • Being married
  • Doing volunteer or charity work
  • Living a religious life
  • Social competition - keeping up with or doing better than others is embedded within these findings. 
These values should come as no surprise since these values are a reflection of what people in a majority of the majority social class believe.  That collective belief has always resulted in the personal and systemic oppression of those who hold different beliefs and values.  If what I believe is normal, and if you believe something different, then you are not normal.

The International Middle Class
Another Pew study: The global middle class: Views on democracy, religion, values, and life satisfaction in emerging nations tells a slightly different story and a gives deeper message.  This report is the basis of The new middle class in emerging markets from The Economist.  The report is divided into sections on democracy, religion and social issues, environmental issues, and life satisfaction and is based on the reported attitudes of the rising middle class: “people in emerging nations whose household income can be considered at least “middle income” by international standards” (p. 1).  

A generalization of the results is that members of the middle class in emerging nations are heavily invested in the political, religious, social, and business system that made them middle class.  For example in nearly all nations studied members of the middle class more strongly supported honest elections with at least two parties as very important than did respondents with lower incomes.  As with the study above, these results should come as no surprise.  If a system has worked for me personally, in this case made me middle income, then I will support that system.

Not middle class values
What is not in the middle class values list above may be an artifact of the research questions asked or may reflect a reality.  For example, education is not a middle class value in the list above, and may in reality not be a middle class value.  As evidence for education not being a middle class value I refer to the 85% high school degree attainment rate and the 30% college degree attainment rate according to the US Census Bureau.  It is important to note that graduation rates for high schools are typically 75% and 50% for colleges.  If education were valued then these rates would be much higher.  However, we do know that 75% of college students have college educated parents, and that only 30% of the parenting public has a college degree.  In the case of education perhaps there are important differences in the value of education within the 91% or this reflects investment in a system that made the parents successful.

A Google search will provide an introduction to the controversy surrounding how to calculate high school graduation numbers.  I support counting the number of 9th grade students and then the number of diplomas awarded four years later adjusted for population growth or decline. 

Middle class values are normative in that they are held by the majority of the people in the majority social class in the US and are thus considered normal.  Reading the bulleted list above should not be a surprise to anyone since it will appear normal.  Adding middle class members’ investment in the political, religious, social, and business system rounds out the picture of middle class values. 

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