Friday, May 24, 2013

Etiquette and Campus

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

I found a great photo of a formal place setting recently with each plate, bowl, glass, cup, and utensil labeled and I posted the photo to Facebook.  Anyone can find such a picture by searching for images using some variation of the words formal, place, and setting.  It is curious that the first several hundred images show a European place setting.  When you add a nation to the search terms the pictures and diagrams remain largely unchanged.  The formal European place setting has taken over the world, easing out indigenous place settings.  I must admit that I do like the irony of the photo of a hot dog and bun on a plate with a knife and fork.

The short discussion of the photo on Facebook brought up the critical question: Where did these rules come from and why do we have them.  A dinner companion once regaled us with a story of a formal event that she attended annually in Paris, the purpose of which, she claimed, “was to set the table in such a way that no one would know what everything was for”. 

What is the purpose of formal rules of etiquette? 

The answer is simple and horrifying.  You, me, him, her, and everyone else is the etiquette police.  The purpose of formal rules of etiquette are to separate out the social classes.  Formal rules of etiquette are the rules of membership in the prestige social class.  When each of us participates in co-creating these socially constructed rules we are reproducing the social class structure of the world.  We are facilitating social injustice when we assume that everyone can, and even should, adhere to certain rules of dining.  Don’t forget that the formal place setting is designed around certain foods prepared in certain ways.  If your foods are different then you should have different formal place settings.  Many Asian cultures use chopsticks of some variety and this reflects food preparation practices dating back thousands of years.  Reliance on formal rules of dining behavior is one way in which social class is reproduced.  Even reliance on informal rules of dining behavior is one of the ways in which the social class hierarchy is reproduced.  Formal rules and formal utensils are for the upper classes and there are other rules and utensils for the middle and lower classes.  Internationally many of the formal rules are based on the European multi-utensil model in spite of long term dining practices with other utensils. 

Colleges and universities, institutions dedicated to helping students build intellectual, cultural, and social capital in order to build economic capital, don’t really help students learn formal etiquette rules.  While there are occasional etiquette dinners to help students who didn’t learn the multi-utensil dinner skills at home, attending a few dinners and learning to eat your soup by spooning it away from your body hardly offsets formal dining at home and at restaurants.  Dining halls on campus are more accurately described as market driven efficient feeding stations.  Finding a soup spoon among the utensils in a student dining hall is difficult. In reality, the people who manage student dining halls are very good at providing what students want to eat and the two plate sizes, two glass sizes, one bowl, and a knife, fork, spoon makes the whole process cost effective. 

Of course, exploring rules of formal place settings and etiquette are an entry way to exploring all of the formal rules of the social classes.  There are a myriad other rules, some quite secret, that act as membership rules for the prestige class.  The prestige variety of English, the posh or upscale accent, greeting rituals, dress codes, and oenological knowledge are other examples of prestige social class rules.  Having homogeneity of norms helps build and sustain relationships, whether these are language norms or dining norms.  There are dangers inherent when one set of norms is elevated as the formal rules.  I am not arguing against dining etiquette, I am fairly fluent in at least three styles of dining rules, I just want us to be aware that our participation in these rules has consequences.

So, wash your hands before you eat and then use your fingers.  Or not.  

Monday, May 06, 2013

SES is not Social Class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Indiana State University 

I went to a wonderful session at AERA 2013 on Improving the Measurement of Socioeconomic Status for the National Assessment of Educational Progress: A Theoretical Foundation that explored the traditional socioeconomic status (SES) measures of education, income, and occupation, while adding the interesting variable of census tract to reflect the concepts of homophily and location.  One of the presenters noted that these variables are not in themselves meaningful, but represent something deeper.  For me social class is the deeper reality measured by education, income, occupation and census tract. 

The Map and the Territory

“The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing.” Alfred Korzybski 
“The description is not the described.” Jiddu Krishnamurti
“We say the map is different from the territory.” Gregory Bateson

We all know that Korzybski, Krishnamurti, and Bateson are right, and then we merrily walk along the map, not the territory.  Because we measure SES by education, income, occupation, and perhaps neighborhood we tend to assume that social class is income, education, occupation, and perhaps neighborhood.  These variables are not social class, they are measures of social status.

A Little About Measurement

Some measures are direct, like age, but most measures are indirect; we measure what can be most easily measured, and not everything can be easily measured.  For example, intelligence is measured most easily using complex standardized assessments of many facets that researchers believe are, or are related to, intelligence.  The question remains open as to whether or not your ability to arrange blocks into certain patterns within a certain time is related to intelligence, some component of intelligence, something related to intelligence, or something spurious.  The concept of multiple facets of intelligence have been mainstream since the beginning of the intellectual assessment movement, so multiple intelligences is nothing new.  

The underlying argument of who gets to define intelligence moves us appropriately into cultural diversity and bias in measurement.  In defending the income bias in standardized testing the Educational Testing Service noted that:

Relationships between test scores and other factors such as educational background, gender, racial/ethnic background, parental education, and household income are complex and interdependent.  These factors do not directly affect test performance; rather, they are associated with educational experiences both on tests such as the SAT and in schoolwork.  

What is social class?

If SES is not social class then what is social class?  From my perspective social class is not education, income, or occupation, or even neighborhood, but rather like ETS I suggest that social class is what you do with and how you think and feel about your education, income, occupation, or even your neighborhood.  Like gender or ethnicity, social class is a social identity, a collection of learned mental and physical behaviors.  Social class is not something you have, it is something you are.  You have an education, an income, an occupation, and even a neighborhood.  But are you education, income, occupation, or a neighborhood?  

We measure what is simplest to measure, like arranging colored blocks into patterns, or education, income, occupation, and neighborhood as long as they are related to the underlying thing we want to measure.  The measurement is of the map, not of the thing. 

Social class is complex.  One way to define class is personal; social class is for each of us an identity and a culture.  It is far easier to measure education, income, and education than it is to measure identity and culture.  Not all upper-middle class cultures are the same.  There are many ways to perform female, or male, or transgendered, there are many ways to perform African American, or European-American, or Thai, or Han, or Hopi, and there are many ways to perform upper-middle class.  Measures for the performance of gender must be appropriately sensitive to variations in culture, region, ethnicity, and social class among other important life space factors.  There is no hegemonic masculinity or femininity in reality, the huge variability of masculinity and femininity makes that an inappropriate idea.  Without a standard definition of gender performance it is impossible to measure gender in any standardized way.  

Education, income, occupation, and neighborhood, traditional measures of SES, are not social class, but they are standardized ways to point a finger at it.  If I point at the moon with my finger, the moon is not my finger.  The map is not the territory and we need to stop acting like it is.  We need to pay attention to the social identities and cultures behind social class.