Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The students' guide to becoming upper-middle class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

If you view social class as a collection of subcultures with shared behaviors, values, knowledge, and attitudes then you can learn those behaviors, values and whatnot.  Based on the number of people who view my blog entry “What are upper-middle class people like?”  I thought I would create a list of things to do to appear to be upper-middle class.  The upper-middle class is the group of college educated and graduate educated professionals, managers, business professionals,  teachers, and faculty.  This is a large and diverse group with many sub-groups.  Once you get the basics of class performance mastered you can move on to specializing in a social class sub-group.

Think of this as lessons in how to assimilate.  You may also think of this is how to class pass.  You may also think of this as how to create adaptive camouflage.  

Lose weight
Being healthy and looking healthy is basic to people in the upper-middle class.  Your physical appearance and health are things that people notice.  Tan skin in the case of Europeans, clear skin, and a healthy BMI are signs of social status.  Learn about exercise and then go to the gym.  On most campuses there are people who are paid to help you get into shape.   Listen to professionals about how to exercise.  Learn about nutrition and eat a lower calorie diet.  Eating more healthy food, even on a student budget, is affordable.  The Freshman Fifteen is the result of poor dining choices, so learn to eat well.  Campuses have wellness centers, nutrition people, and loads of resources for you.  

Dress well
Dress, like health, is one of the first social class cues that people notice.  Even on campus you should dress well.  It should be no surprise that students who are dressed well tend to be perceived more positively by faculty than those who are not dressed well.  Better perception means better grades.  There are many types of dressing well based on gender, ethnicity, and location.  There is not a standard upper-middle class dress code other than being semi-formal or at least business casual.  Wear a polo rather than a t-shirt.  Wear a dress shirt rather than a polo.  Wear a tie with a dress shirt.  A good rule is to avoid brand logos on anything you wear  then you will never have the wrong brand.  It is easy to judge others by brand names, so avoid this fashion cue.

It doesn’t need to cost a lot to dress well.  Thrift shopping is a great source of quality clothing but to be successful as a thrift shopper you need to know about clothing quality and construction.  Dressing well means learning something about clothing, construction, and fit.  Career centers on campus often have people who will help you learn.  YouTube is a great resource on dress and clothing.  In a few hours you can be quite well informed about dressing well.  Shopping wisely for quality doesn’t cost a lot.  Quality clothing last longer, so make sure you like it and make sure it fits before you buy.  

Learn the difference between fad and fashion.  Always go with classic fashion.

Language
Members of the upper-middle class are language snobs and that is not going to change.  Language is one of the first social class messages, along with dress, that people notice.  Like dress bias, language bias is unjust,  unfair, and unlikely to change.  Think of the upper-middle class dialect as a new language for you.  Campus writing centers will help you with the written variety of prestige English.  Online resources are freely available.  

Knowing a second variety of English is a good thing.  Do not lose your language or origin.  It is yours, cherish it.  Know that you are judged unfairly on people’s perception of your use of language.  Make up your own mind.  Social class is inherently unfair and unlikely to disappear.  

If you really want extra social class points then be able to speak and read a second language at a B2 level (see CEFR, and knowing about CEFR gets you points also).  Knowledge is valued by members of the upper-middle class.  Have some poetry or sayings readily available in your second or third language to make sure people know that you know something.  If poetry or sayings are not your thing, then read a major newspaper in that language (at least the headlines) and reference reading something in it.  “I was reading in Le Monde/Der Spiegel/El Pais  last week that . . . “

Learn school stuff
Data indicates that most students study or do school work around 10 hours per week.  If you double that you will dramatically improve your grades and learn a lot more.  Think of college as a 40 hour a week job.  Put in your 40 hours, and even overtime.  Members of the upper-middle class value knowledge and academics.  Young people are often judged by their GPA.  This judgement is unjust, unfair, and unlikely to change.  Remember that social class is about hierarchy, and any opportunity to rank you in a hierarchy comes in handy for people who don’t know any better.

Learn non-school stuff
There is a secret handshake, secret narrative, and secret knowledge to the upper-middle class.  The secret knowledge is cultural capital.  Bourdieu (read Forms of Capital) wrote about cultural capital.  The short version is that cultural capital is the knowledge and skills of the ruling class, the class that makes and enforces the rules.  In the US the ruling class is the upper-middle class.  General education exists because those courses are cultural capital.  Art, music, theater, literature, science, news, economics, politics, are all cultural capital knowledge.  On campus it is amazing that students who have free access (pre-paid at least) to cultural events stay away in large numbers.  

Eating and drinking are social classed.  Knowledge about food, alcohol, beer, and wine is basic for people in the upper-middle class.  Taking the time to read food magazines like Saveur, Bon Appetit, and the like on the web will provide a great food and drink education.  They also have great low cost recipes sometimes.

Geography, at least tourist geography, is a knowledge base.  Members of the upper-middle class have a collection of places to visit that are upscale and safe.  These tourist traps, like Cancun or Pattaya, are often in the midst of a great local area more deserving of your time.  Disneyesque sanitized experiences are part of the upper-middle class travel and vacation knowledge.  Learn where these places are; Hilton Head is different than Diamond Head.

Learn interpersonal skills
Along with Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital there is his idea of social capital.  Learn how to make and maintain friendships, loose ties, strong ties (read Strength of Weak Ties by Granovetter) and relationships with a wide range of people.  Social capital is not who you know, it is who knows you.  Networking skills are critical.  Making friends with people who have resources means that you have access to those resources.  Leadership skills training spends a lot of time on the interpersonal part of leading.  Sign up for that training.

Learn how to tell a great story and learn how to tell a story great.  Be memorable, be personable, and be yourself.  Learning how to be comfortable in group and social settings is a skill for extroverts, introverts, and people in the middle.  There are groups like Toastmasters on most campuses to help you learn more about speaking in public.  

Being a member of student organizations is a great way to meet people and practice your social skills.  Being a volunteer for an organization is a great skill builder.  

Study abroad
In the blog “Stuff White People Like” #72 the author writes about study abroad.  While funny, it is also true.  Your experience of study abroad can place you in another culture, or you can stay in the golden ghetto of US students.  You choose.  There is often financial aid for study abroad, so it can be affordable.  Most campuses have a study abroad office, or belong to a consortium of campuses that have a study abroad program.  

Get rich slowly
Saving and investing wisely is a life skill.  Take the time to attend campus seminars on financial
literacy, visit a local bank and ask for someone to explain wealth management.  Say that you need to know for a life skills class.  Accumulating economic wealth takes time, as does accumulating cultural capital/wealth and social capital/wealth.  These are investments and investments take time to grow.  Make sure to learn what all of this costs.  

Pay attention
The best way to learn about people in the upper-middle class is to watch and listen.  And then take the time to learn.

Don’t lose your self
You are who you are.  Don’t lose that as you learn about a new subculture.  Learning a new collection of behaviors and values should be a “Yes, and . . . “ occasion.  

Caveat
This blog may be offensive to some people.  Some people may infer that I am suggesting that you should assimilate to an unjust and non-inclusive system.  Far from it, I am providing you with informed choice.  Make up your own mind.  Please note that there are alternative UMC cultures beyond being a hipster so you have a wide range of choices.  

Chances are pretty good that social class  is not going to disappear in your lifetime.  Your choice is what you are going to do about social class.  If you want to fight against the system, good for you.  If you want to corrupt it from the inside, good for you.   If you want to ignore social class, do so at your peril.  

We all have an attributed social class, what others think of us.  This attribution can be managed.  We all have a social class of origin, and we need to keep that in our hearts and minds.  We all have a current felt social class, and that is entirely up to you.  

Edit Dec 4. Someone noted on Twitter that I did not include anything on college major. People in the upper-middle class don't see college as vocational preparation. College is preparation for graduate and professional school. Getting yourself ready for graduate or professional school is central to the college experience. Plan it out carefully. Prepare carefully. Find out what the graduate or professional school of your choice wants and build toward that.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

How do I change my social class?


Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

Let's assume that you, like many, wish to become more like people in the upper middle class. Whether or not this is a good idea is a matter of a lot of discussion. However the existence of an industry to help people change their social class upward must be recognized. For a price someone will be happy to teach you the secret handshake. And, yes, there is a secret handshake.

Changing social class is a "Yes, and" process at best. You may add to your life and you may experience internal conflict. You may do both. Changing your social class may alienate you from people you know and may alienate you from the person you are now. Classism is very real around the world. In the US the idea of “thinking you’re better than others” is used as an expression of class hate. That classist expression is also a statement about the importance of social class.

To change something we need to understand it; this is basic Sun Tzu and change management. Understanding social class is not easy. Social status, which is not social class, is typically defined as educational attainment and occupational prestige. To change your social status you would need more education and a higher prestige job. Income, which is not social class, is also used as a way to understand class in the US. To change your economic status upward you would need to get more money, or appear to get more money. Education, job prestige, and money are not really social class. And social and economic status make a good start to understanding social class. Socioeconomic status, which is not social class, is about social and economic status. On the other hand, social status and economic status are easier to change than your social class identity.

My assumption here is that social class is a personal identity. Personal identity is related to education, job prestige, and money. However as Tyler Durden noted: “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis.” On the other hand that movie character was trying to free people from inappropriate identity issues. Many people self identify with their car, their khakis, their job, their house, and the contents of their wallet. Marketing to have us identify with our purchases.

Pierre Bourdieu wrote in Forms of Capital that we need to think beyond economic capital, money, to include cultural capital and social capital. Cultural capital, simplified, is knowledge and skills of the prestige social class. Social capital is the personal network of individuals who can be recruited for action, from helping you move to helping you form a new corporation.

Changing your social status

Changing what others think about you. Your social status comes from what you think about yourself, your current felt social class, and what others think about you, your attributed social class. To change our social class we would need to change both what we think of our self and what others think of us. I have written that social class is a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. So managing what others think about you, your attributed social class, is about managing others perceptions of your prestige within a hierarchy.

Economic Capital. The simple answer to manage how others perceive you is to purchase prestige. Buy more up-scale branded stuff. Marketers and consumer goods manufacturers have you targeted for this. With obviously labeled fashions it is easy to purchase prestige. The same purchase decisions apply to everything from sunglasses to purses to alcohol and to recreational drugs. The purchase of prestige is the display of economic capital. You don’t have to have money, you only need to be perceived to have money. It should be noted that there is probably a relationship between personal debt and the performance of social class. Bigger houses, bigger cars, finer clothing, and dining our all take money. Economists call these purchases positional goods.

Budweiser Beer that has a variety of brands that can be arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. Anheuser-Busch InBev expands this range of beer products. Beer manufacturers are keenly aware of hierarchies of prestige and even offer microbrands for those who wish an alternative social class. Yes, your choice of beer is a performance of social class.

tl;dr - appear to have more money by having more prestige stuff.

Cultural Capital. Cultural capital is another way to understand social class. Think about the social class that you wish to be in and then think about what they care about, what they eat, what they drink, where they vacation, what they read, etc. This is where the idea of social class as subcultures comes in; people in each social class have a different set of shared values and behaviors that is different, although slightly, from people similar social class subcultures. As with purchasing prestige goods you can purchase cultural capital with lessons. Dance lessons, wine lessons, dining lessons, speech lessons, art and music lessons and lessons in other forms of high prestige cultural capital. The role of Art and Music in school and college curriculum is curious.

tl;dr - become more well informed about food, drink, music, values, etc.

Social Capital. Social capital is about creating and maintaining social relationships with networks of people who you can rally for combined effort. “It’s not who you know, but who knows you.” according to Dr. Michael Cuyjet. Social capital is as much about getting people to help you move apartments as getting people to work together for a business deal. Making and keeping relationships takes time and skill, as does accumulating economic and cultural capital. These skills can be learned.

tl;dr - get interpersonal skills to get into the networks of people with resources.

Changing what you think about your self. Managing your self perception is another issue altogether. There are a variety of ways to be middle class or upper middle class. You need to understand where you are and where you want to be. You also need to understand if you want to keep your current social class identity and add another, or if you want to leave your current self behind. I personally think we should not leave our identities behind.

Social Class Mobility
Recent research in social mobility is actually about income mobility. Not surprisingly the children of people in the upper half of the income distribution in the USA have lower income mobility, and higher incomes, than those in the lower half. There are many take-away messages. First, that the incomes of parents in the upper half have greater affect on their children than those in the lower half. Second, most social mobility, measured as income, comes from those whose parents were in the lower half of the income distribution.

What this means is that your social class, like your expression of gender and ethnicity, is learned. What can be learned can be taught. However, should you unlearn your current social class, gender, and ethnicity? As a value statement I believe that we should honor our social class of origin, and if we wish to learn to be a member of a new social class culture we should do that too.

Learning to be bicultural is double tough. First, you will always have an accent in a second culture. Get over it. The good news is that almost no one will notice since a lot of people have these social class accents. The other good news is that a lot of people move in social class.

Valuing and Devaluing any Social Class

The nature of social class is a hierarchy made up by people like you and me. There is no reality to social class, it is all socially co-constructed. To value any social class group is to devalue others. Value here is a zero sum game, the more one player gets the less other players get.

tl;dr - get more stuff, know more stuff, meet more people with more stuff. You are going to have identity issues as you change class.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

An egalitarian in a hierarchical world.

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University


I have spent most of my life as a majority member of the US majority culture.  I learned equality as a young person and I positively reinforced equality as an adult.  I embrace the US axiom that no one gets to be special.  Even academic titles and ranks bothered me when I was a Professor.  I came up during the 60s freedom marches that emphasized that equality was a matter of law and of culture.  At least my assumptions about equality in law and culture is what I believed about myself.  Being outside of my own culture I have a chance to highlight some of my own culture and my participation in the rituals of prestige and privilege.


I now live in Thailand and work as a Professor at Roi Et Rajabhat University, a provincial campus in the north east.  Being a Professor is both a social roll and an academic position here and in the US.  My current social role and academic position are much different than my life as a Professor in the US.  


Thai cultural behaviors, reflecting Thai cultural values, act to reify a system of social stratification.  I am old, so younger people must pay me respect.  I am a Professor on my campus so people must pay me respect.  This is all attribution, it is what others think of me and this is central to most of my relationships.  This is what I have referred to as attributed social class, what others think of us.  As a result of valuing my age, academic rank, as well as my national origin Thais have a set of behaviors to go along with these attributes.


The Wai is a greeting with raised hands, and always given from youngest to oldest. It must be returned. This is a cultural imperative.  I have seen mothers and fathers raise a toddlers hands to Wai me.  The formalization of a hierarchy based on age through this gesture is one of the central facets of Thai interpersonal interactions.  It is a conditioned response here.  I occasionally get it wrong and I am the first to Wai others and I often Wai younger people because I have US ideas of politeness that come from a different culture.  The Thai people I work with are forgiving of my cultural mistakes, at least for now.  Tolerance for others is also a Thai cultural value.


There is a doctoral student in my department who is a serious player in the current Thai government.  In my US frame of mind I need to respect him for his accomplishments and earned prestige.  Here, he is obligated to Wai me because of my age.


The meeting with him was a delightful moment for me because it highlighted cultures in conflict.  There was a momentary contrast between what I felt obligated to do based on US ideas of privilege and hierarchy, and what he felt obligated to do based on Thai ideas of privilege and hierarchy.


A second set of behaviors related to hierarchies of privilege occurs here in professional settings. When we, my wife is also a Professor here, go to conferences or when we give workshops, at lunchtime we are segregated from attendees in order to dine with presenters and honored guests, like Deans and campus Presidents. This segregation makes the two tiered class system visible.  Vonnegut referred to people being given status as stars and the rest of us as bit part players. While the division of stars and bit part players can be experienced in US culture these two groups are formalized and ritualized in obvious ways here.  Perhaps I notice this two tier system here because I was never invited to the head table at meetings in the US.


Coming from a democratic culture that celebrated equality this Thai age and prestige hierarchy is a personal challenge. While hierarchies of prestige and privilege dominate US culture, and I have all manner of earned and unearned prestige and privilege, the open recognition, the ritual in basic behaviors, bothers me here. While I, and nearly everyone I know in the US, participate in the rituals of privilege and hierarchy in the US seeing these rituals in another culture is seeing them anew.  Twain was right that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness”.  This experience with hierarchies here helps me highlight the rituals and assumptions of hierarchies of prestige and privilege in my cultures of origin.  


I participate in these rituals here because this is not my culture and I try to honor the cultural practices here.  To seek to change the culture here is cultural imperialism.  So, to what extent should I cease to participate in these cultural rituals of prestige and privilege in my own culture?  Affecting my own culture is not cultural imperialism.  What can I do as an ex-pat?  I can help point out how we all participate in co-evolving inequality.

In the spirit of equality and respect for autonomy, you go ahead and do what you want. And please be mindful of how your life affects others’ lives.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is your designer purse a social class microaggression?


Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Indiana State University

The idea of microaggressions was first developed in 1970 by C. M. Pierce to describe small aggressions against African-Americans by non-African-Americans (Sue, 2010). Sue described microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." (Sue, 2010). Wikipedia (2015) defined microaggressions as “a form of unintended discrimination. It is depicted by the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.” The Wikipedia authors also noted that “Scientific investigation of microaggression is hampered by the lack of a theory that makes any empirically testable prediction.”

While originally intended to explore ethnicity, the idea of microaggressions has been used to explore other diversity issues. Discussions of gender now use the ideas of microaggressions, as do discussions of religion, and other kinds of diversity. In this blog I want to apply the idea of microaggression to social class. The underlying idea of microaggression requires group membership and social classes, however defined, constitute groups. Classism is class-based prejudice (http://www.classism.org/about-class/what-is-classism/).

Obviously labeled fashion, a phrase introduced to me by Aimee Medina, can be read as "I can afford this and you can't" or as "I have better fashion taste than you". In this way the prestige hierarchy of social class in this culture becomes part of the public behavioral, or performance, dialog. The bag becomes a statement to be read by others. Yes, a designer bag can be a social class microaggression that “without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.” (Wikipedia, 2015)

Micro aggressions are about behaviors which may be interpreted as insensitivities and denigrations. Fashion labels, central to marketing strategies, are used by both seller and buyer in complex ways. The purchase of social or economic status through positional goods, like the purchase of religious or ideological sigils, become public displays, behaviors, of identity. Is your designer purse a social class microaggression? Yes!

Social class microaggressions are there for all of us to see if we look. We look and don't see. A Confederate flag, a sigil for many things obvious and mysterious, is a racist micro aggression for some people. An Ichthys, a sigil of deep and complex meaning on the back of a car is a microaggression against all non Christians. Obviously labeled fashion, a sigil for social class, serves similarly as a microaggression.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. New York, NY: Wiley. pp. xvi

Wikipedia, (2015). Microaggression theory. http://en.wikipedia.org





Friday, February 27, 2015

The New Social Class War Code Words

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Watching the media show that was the 2015 State of the Union Address highlighted some of the emergent language around class currently being used in the political arena. The critical key phrases were middle class and pro-business. Unpacking each of these phrases takes some critical effort. Middle class is a vague term that seems to include every one not in poverty and everyone not in the 1%. The connotation is that the middle class are regular people like you and me. The idea of pro-business takes a little more effort to unpack and we need to peer behind the code word a little. Corporations, or in this case businesses, are a legal fiction allowing non-persons to enter into contracts and do some, but not all, people like things of a business nature. Pro-business, as I read it, is a code word for pro-business owners and managers. Corporations, or businesses, are made up of people, so being pro-business is being pro-people-in-business. This would include workers, managers, and owners. My guess is that the code word is really about people who are business owners or people who are in senior management. Not all business owners or senior managers make a lot of money so it is unfair to characterize all business owners and senior managers as wealthy, but among the wealthy most of them are business owners or senior managers.

Pro-middle class seems to be about regular people.

Pro-business seems to be about wealthy people.

The State of the Union is a critical part of how our government works. The government of the USA was set up as much to help the citizens as to help the businesses. The Constitution and Bill of Rights is about people, not about businesses. The government emphasis on business or on people shifts. Businesses create jobs, and this is a good thing. Most of us are wage slaves of some sort, working for businesses or for the government. People need jobs. The extent to which businesses or people drive the economy, and consequently have importance, is a hotly debated topic.

Republican President Lincoln noted in 1863 that we have a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Republican President Eisenhower famously warned us in 1960 about the Military-Industrial complex. I recall fondly watching the play and movie Li'l Abner and remember the phrase “What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA.” Class warfare has been part of our national narrative for a very long time.

That was then, this is now. The dialog of pro-business and pro-middle class can be seen as open class warfare. As with all warfare camouflage is central to hiding our true position.