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 out all take money. Economists call these purchases positional goods.
Budweiser Beer 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.