Will Barratt, Ph.D.
People are curious about their social class. Multiple web sites will assist you with a quiz or a checklist grounded in some idea of social class. Most of these groundings, these ideas about social class, are not explicit and we need to read with critical analysis to understand what idea of class is being promoted or reflected. I am curious as to why we want some quiz or checklist to tell us our social class? What is it about us and what is it about social class that brings this question up? There is a simple question here: “What social class am I?” and there is a complex question here: “What is being (insert social class here) like?”. I think both of these questions drive us to know more.
What is my social class?
The New York Times has an interactive graphic that will help you identify your social class based on occupation, education, and income. The illusion of certainty is obtained through the use of objective measures without asking the question if occupation, education, and income are the right questions to ask, or if the rankings on the scale are accurate. This is probably the most sophisticated measure available on line.
PBS provides an entertaining quiz and links to material covered as a supplement to their excellent People Like Us video. This is an excellent and informative, research based, complex view of social class designed to stimulate conversation.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a quiz based on Paul Fussell’s “The Living Room Scale” that asks questions about what you have, or don’t have, in your living room. For example, you get points for having an old oriental carpet and lose points for having a new one. Even asking that question shows a clear bias toward making distinctions at the upper end of the social class scale. On the third hand, what market share is the quiz directed at? This is interesting and uses a questionable model of social class as their measure, but it is a fun and interesting checklist.
Quizfarm has a quiz developed by gonewiththegale based on questions about stuff, attitudes, and values that compares your answers to individuals in various social class groups, and of course my favorite social class group and my highest score; alternative. This quiz reflects a complex view of class, and uses class stereotypes to create questions.
Dack.com has the quick quiz Determine Your Social Class Based on What You Drink, with three class options that is also based on Paul Fussell’s work. While amusing, this is based solely on class stereotypes and reflects no research. A critical look at liquor advertising will reveal the flaws in both Fussell’s work and this quiz.
Tim Sheard posted a quiz for a University course in 2008 based on Ruby Payne’s work. While the quiz is an excellent reflection of Payne’s work, reading the questions brings into clear question Payne’s assumptions about class groups. For example, the lower class items involve weapons and crime and the upper class items reflect an imaginary group personified by Donald Trump. This is an ideological and stereotyped view of social class that should be read very critically.
Along with Andrew Lurker, Angela Carlen, Meagan Cahill, Minnette Huck, and Stacy Ploskonka I produced a group experience quiz called the Social Class Cultural Capital Knowledge Quiz that used Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to look at two social class groups. The assumption was that cultural capital – knowledge – was an effective way to make people aware of the distinctions between social classes. This quiz was designed to stimulate conversation and self-exploration of social class stereotypes.
In reality, most people identify as middle class according to the Pew study Inside the middle class: Bad times hit the good life. So why do I ask “What class am I?” when I already know? The middle class is a huge group — 91% of the respondents in the Pew study identified as lower-middle class, middle class, or upper-middle class — so the question becomes “What kind of middle class am I?” or “How am I middle class?”
How am I middle class?
I believe that this is the question that people want answered. We want to know more about our performance of their class. We also want to know what others in our social class do and we want to be entertained by what people in other social classes do. You can, and probably should, take each of the quizzes and checklists listed above and then think about the model of social class that each one reflects. You should also continue reading this to explore a totally different model and of social class and an assessment based on consumer habits.
The myth of the homogeneous social class is as ubiquitous as it is untrue. The myth of class descriptions based on living rooms contents or on the ability to acquire handguns or bail money is untrue. There are general trends, but social class is a complex social construct. Social class identity and the performance of social class must be learned. Messages of how people in each social class are supposed to behave are transmitted by the media in order to make money on the trappings of social class. You are a social class market segment and the advertisements in your media outlets are a social class gold mine – literally. Look at the advertisements in the magazines that you read and in the media that you watch. Advertisers spend a lot of money trying to understand the buying habits of people who see their ads. We are all a social class market segment, even if we are in an alternative social class according to an on-line quiz.
Social Class Self-Assessment
First, we need to understand that each of us applies a social class value to nearly everything from beverages (Is Miller brand beer lower class, middle class, or upper class?) to education (Which is a higher social class university; Michigan State University or Harvard University?). Second, we need to understand that there are two social class values for everything; one assigned by you or me and one assigned by people in the prestige social class.
Use the two scales below in your quest to find your social class based on your consumer habits.
My assignment of social class
Prestige social class assignment of social class
For every full page advertisement you read or 1 minute TV ad you see make a mark on the scale based on how you would assign prestige value from within your social class. Second, make a mark on the second scale based on how you think the prestige social class would rank the item in the advertisement.
Example 1: If there is an advertisement for a Daiwa Goldcast reel you may, because of your social class and cultural capital, rate it as a 4 or 5. After all, they are really nice. However, someone from the prestige social class would rank all fishing equipment as a 2. People in the prestige social class don’t fish for Bass much. Fly fishing is another story.
Example 2: You may rate an advertisement about vacations to Paris or safaris to Kenya as a 5, as would someone from the prestige social class. In this case both ratings would be a 5.
Once you have 20-30 marks, you will know what marketers think of your social class based on your consumer habits.
The assumption about consumption
This is a consumer model of social class, and the assumption is that consumption reflects social class. It is true that some upper-middle class people go Bass fishing, and some lower-middle class people fly fish. Some working class people go to Paris. In general, the marketers know a lot about our performance of social class through shopping.