Monday, December 23, 2013

5 Things you Need to Know about Social Class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Lotus Delta Coffman Distinguished Professor, Indiana State University

In school we only tell you what we want you to know.  Here are five things that you were never taught in school and that you need to know about social class.

1:  Social class is more than money.  Most people think that social class is money because it is easy to count.  If this were true then the truck driver wife and nurse husband would be in one of the upper classes and this is not true.  To think that social class is about money is the same as thinking that ethnicity is about skin color.  Measuring Socioeconomic Status (SES) typically uses educational attainment and occupational prestige.  These SES measures are related to money but are not themselves money.  Social class is about prestige, itself a fuzzy concept.  Different social class groups and different cultural groups have different ideas about prestige.  Bourdieu (1986) wrote that social class was about economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital.  He maintained that different forms of capital could be transformed into each other.  In the truck driver/nurse case above the couple is probably sees as lacking the cultural capital, knowledge and skills valued by the upper classes, and social capital, knowing the right people who have access to resources.

2: Social class is personal.  In academic venues economic and sociological ideas about social class hold sway and social class is seen as an economic or social force.  Societies and economies are the collective actions of individuals.  In reality we all have a social class identity in the same way we have a gender identity, ethnic identity, spiritual identity, and many more identities.  We have a social class of origin identity (where we came from), a current felt social class identity (what we think of ourselves now), and an attributed social class identity (what others think of us).  Homophily, birds of a feather flocking together, create social movements, and the collective actions of individuals create economies.  In reality social class is you and me.  There is no reality behind social class, it is all constructed at the individual level.

3: Social class is ubiquitous.  Colleagues remind me that ‘everything is gendered’ or that ‘everything is about race’.  Yes, and ‘everything is classes’.  Here is a simple experience.  Assign social class to each of the following: Martinis, Prozac, Beer, NASCAR, Tennis, Golf, Fishing, Hipsters.  The list can go on and on, but every time I ask audience members to assign social class they have no trouble.  The social class of beer is a trick question because the brand, not the product, determines the social class attribution.  In classless communist societies, I have lived in two, social class is often in the foreground.  Nicer fabric in school uniforms, better quality ball point pens for the military officers, neighborhoods for the better people, and segmentation of all kinds based on some notion of prestige are ubiquitous features of modern society, whether communist, socialist, or capitalist.

4: Social class is central to your life.  While most people don’t foreground social class the way they might foreground gender, or ethnicity, or religion, social class determines the way in which you perform your gender, your ethnicity, and your religion.  People in different social class groups have different ideas about gender roles, about ethnicity, about religion, about food, and whatnot.  Social class can be seen as a culture, as a group of people with shared ideas and values.  Social class determines if you go to college, where you go to college, and in large measure determines if you graduate – rich kids do better in college.  Social class determines what you eat and drink – see number 3 above.  

5: Social class is inherently hierarchical and inequitable.  Gender is based on biological dimorphism.  Ethnicity is based on place of birth and shared genetic characteristics relating to skin, hair, and eyes.  Equity is the goal in gender and ethnicity, and in other diversities.  Social class, because it is inherently hierarchical, will never succumb to social justice unless we do away with the idea of prestige, hierarchy, and social position.

What does it all mean?  We all co-create social class every minute of every day.  Social class is not some abstract out there, it is something that you participated in today.  When we arrange ourselves in social hierarchies based on popularity, or prestige, or college attended, or college degree, or height, or religion, or political ideology, or fashion sense we co-create social class.  I would challenge you to stop this but I don’t think most people can stop it until they become aware of their own role in co-creating social class.


Gabor Por said...

Great post, just a few comments/addition.

1. In classless communist societies, I have lived in two, social class is often in the foreground.

a. I would have put "classless" in quotation marks, because as you point out, those societies are only supposed to be classless.

b. hat I observed, I only lived only in one of these, class is not in the foreground, but in the background. The whole point of these regimes were that they created the illusion of equality on the surface, which resulted that class sank below the surface, onto the kind of thing you mentioned.

2. I believe that education has a lot do do with social classes. That is the one way you can attain upward mobility between social classes. Money (#1) alone won't change it. But acquiring the "right" status symbols, attitudes and behaviors might.

N said...

In the spirit of the last poster, I would also like to comment on the point you made that "rich kids do better in college". While it may seem intuitively true to some, as far as I know it lacks proof. In fact, some studies in the UK have found that state schooled students actually perform better than those from private education (see e.g.

Will Barratt, Ph.D. said...

In the US income is related positively to graduation rate for college students.