Sunday, December 18, 2016

Social Class Categories are Stupid

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

I recall a conversation about gender with a respected student affairs colleague when I quipped "Two is a stupid number" she got the giggles as she recognized this simple truth. 

Stupid is defined as lacking intelligence or common sense.  I use it here not to refer to people but as an attribute of the idea of categories.  Applying intelligence and common sense, anti-stupid, reveals a lot about categories.

My point is that categories for any of our identity statuses are stupid ideas.  For the most part.  The inherent problem in any categorizing scheme is the criteria for being in one or another category.  Aristotelian philosophy will not allow A and Not-A to exist at once. Aristotle posited an either/or world.  The simple interpretation is that you cannot have dual gender identities, according to Aristotle.  I recall reading the World of Null A and Players of Null A (A. E. van Vogt) as an adolescent.  The book was a science fiction condemnation of Aristotelian philosophy, embracing Null A, or a non-Aristotelian world view in which you can be multiple identities at once, and leading into what was at that time General Semantics.  I recall when I was 15 (more than 50 years ago) being at a friend's house and painting an entire piece of newsprint as shades of grey, because there was no real black and white.  In my mind at that time there were no legitimate hard categories.  This art hung over my bed for a few years.

Some categories are real, and are typically based on observable and repeatable science.  For example a Platypus is a category for a critter that meets the genetic requirements for being a Platypus.  However when we look closely there is genetic diversity among Platypuses.  So if a critter manages to fall within some fuzzy genetic boundaries it is a Platypus.

I recall as a graduate student learning about paper and pencil tests used to measure masculinity and femininity.  Any good test gave two scores, one for each gender, because the authors of the test knew that there was huge overlap in gender scores when people were classified genetically by sex.  Researchers also understood that these categorical definitions of sex and gender were culturally bound, dodgy, and fuzzy.

As part of our Unitarian Universalist Liberal Religious Youth (Sunday school for adolescents) program we had a program called The Church Across the Street in which we visited local churches, synagogues, and temples and had conversation with whoever was in charge and got a behind the scenes look. I learned about the diversity within Christianity and diversity within the Abrahamic tradition. The category of Christian is, at best, very ambiguous.

I developed the Barratt Simple Measure of Social Status (BSMSS) as an update to the Hollingshead Four Factor Index of Social Status using updated data on occupational prestige.  The BSMSS is used in a lot of public and private research.  The most common question I get from those using it is how to assign a social class category to a score.  The answer is that you cannot - the BSMSS produces a score best used in regression.

Genetics informs us a lot about ethnicity and genetically based ethnicity is complex.  Classifying someone as belonging to an ethnicity is a fuzzy idea.  I know my genetic background, thanks to 23andme.com, and realize that my ethnicity is genetically fuzzy.  How much non-European genetic material does it take for me to be non-European?

People like categories.  People like simple answers.  When asked about their social class most people in the USA will identity that they are some variety of Middle Class.  When asked what this means USA respondents will say a secure job and the ability to save money.  Using this as a way to define the category I would ask "How secure a job, and how much money can you save?"

Using categories is a problem.  I read things like "men are . . . " or "women are . . . " or "all White people . . . " and I tend to disregard what follows in my assumption that whoever wrote it did not think much about these handy, and wrong-minded, categories.  When you generalize I want to know what criteria you are using for men, or women, or white, or all white people.

The way we determine social class is dynamic and situational.  People in different social class circumstances and identities define social class quite differently. The best non-stupid way to look at social class is as a hierarchy, a continuum of status and prestige in which the markers of status and prestige change.  What counts as prestige for those in the upper 30% , the ruling class, is often quite different than what counts as prestige for the lower 30%.  Those of us in the upper 30% get to make the rules and set the social class categories.  And yes, this rule making is social class cultural imperialism and privilege.

tl;dr Social class categories are stupid ideas.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As I see it, the problem is not "A or not-A," but that not-A is defined incorrectly. Too many people define categories (or labels) as unnecessarily exclusive. For example, if A is "This person is masculine," then not-A is *not* "This person is feminine." This is not a true "A or not-A" situation (a person can have both masculine and feminine traits at the same time), yet some people will try to define categories as if one must exclude the other--which is not always correct. - John G