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.