A Matter of Class

Why Social Class Matters, Even if We Don’t Agree on What It Means – The Chronicle of Higher Education

By the 1990s, the “death of class” thesis took to the field: a number of sociologists, of various ideological persuasions, were suggesting that class was a historical artifact, ready for the dustbin. Others, in the Simpsonian tradition, doubted whether it had ever been a useful designation. The sociologist Peter Calvert’s study The Concept of Class (1982) argued that the idea was so muddled as to be useless, even dangerous. The great literary scholar P.N. Furbank, writing in the 1990s, proposed that “class” was “a baneful concept and one which we need at least to try to unthink.”

In the years since, many scholars have decided to get on without it, while many others have devised increasingly intricate, multidimensional metrics for measuring it. Leaving the medieval scholastics in the dust, we now have — among other metrics — the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarero schema (EGP), which spawned Casmin, the Comparative Study of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations; the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC); the Cambridge Social Interaction and Stratification scales (Camsis); and the more narrowly tailored Standard International Occupational Prestige Scale (Siops), to say nothing of various small-is-beautiful proposals for “microclass” metrics. Nisbet, anticipating such developments, insisted that real class would be a tangible, easily observable relationship, and that “the proof of existence of a social class worthy of the sociological name should not have to depend upon multivariate analysis.”

When I was younger, it was more people to my left who wanted to talk about social class as something distinct from economic class. Since then, the right has embraced it enthusiastically (though only applying it to whites) while more and more people I talk to on the left want to reduce it to economics (when talking about whites).

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17 thoughts on “A Matter of Class

  1. When Louisville was told by the Supreme Court that they could no longer use race as the only factor in desegregation efforts, they modified the program to target ‘socio-economic’ class. I have read so much literature on this that I oscillate frequently between supporting and being skeptical of the plan. With that said, in Louisville this means a high percentage of minorities are bussed, but it has also expanded to lower-income white kids.

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  2. What the Left rejects is the idea that the social aspects of class, especially being working class, are entirely defined by older, white, rural and exurban people.

    Not really buying the BSDI-ism here.

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  3. When I was younger, it was more people to my left who wanted to talk about social class as something distinct from economic class.

    In my recollection until very recently the left viewed class almost *exclusively* in economic terms, and it was the right which pushed against that view. Bush the Younger, for example, talked very openly about the role 401Ks and other investment vehicles played in making the US an (economically) classless society. I think the consequence of those efforts is that *the right*, and not so much the left, identifed class differences as something other than wealth and income: education level, mustard preferences, knowledge of milk prices…

    I don’t know, dude. It’s all been flipped on its head.

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  4. A bit surprised to be reading the piece and run into a chunk of Civil War revisionism from Herbert Donald’s _Lincoln Reconsidered _ (1956) Donald was a good writer, and his one volume biography of Lincoln published in 1995 probably remains the standard, but I don’t think his “status anxiety” thesis stands the test of time. It wasn’t challenged in the 1950s because it was consistent with a period of greater interest in psychoanalysis and it was within the political framework of Schlesinger’s writings on Andrew Jackson.

    All that said, a British writer shouldn’t hand-wave off the significance of “race” to American society, and I found a lot of the observations don’t hold true in pretending the U.K. and the U.S. have common class orientations.

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  5. Its interesting to lay this issue alongside #metoo and the evolving revelations of abuse of the powerless by colleges, businesses, and the Catholic Church. I will add to this the revealed corruption in the financial world, where prosecution of white collar crime like Manafort is almost unheard of, and where HSBC Bank literally laundered money for terrorists, and yet was let off scot free because they were too powerful to prosecute.

    Class probably isn’t defined as neatly as it once was by income level, but it strikes me how obvious it is that there are different standards of behavior depending on how powerful one is, and that usually but not always translates into wealth.

    Part of me wants to say that if you have to tell people that class exists, it must not be that powerful, but I also can’t help but think how we – collectively we as a society- have internalized this and made it something unquestioned.
    For decades now, we have consumed movies and tv shows displaying prosecutors and police as heroic forces of good against evil, and the climactic scene of a criminal getting beaten or shot, or an accused being roughly interrogated until they break, is the highlight of the show.

    But now notice the freakout about abuse of prosecutorial power, now that someone high up the food chain has run afoul of the law. Notice how suddenly when powerful men are accused of sexual misconduct, the sudden alarm over the rights of the accused.

    I notice also how corporate CEOs are portrayed like mythological heroes to whom we must gaze in awe and deference as benevolent bestowers of jobs and prosperity, like gods favoring us with rainfall. And of course, the less said about the tech lords, the better.

    I don’t know exactly where the class lines are, or how they are shaped, but it seems fairly obvious that in our society, some people are worth more than others.

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    • “Class probably isn’t defined as neatly as it once was by income level, but it strikes me how obvious it is that there are different standards of behavior depending on how powerful one is, and that usually but not always translates into wealth.”

      This is an interesting point. I have recently been watching Poldark on BBC. It is set around 1790s Britain and the characters are obsessed with class (much the same way as Downton Abbey I suppose). It demonstrates just how hard it was to move from one class to another, even if you had the money to do so.

      It’s interesting to note that today, many of the benefits that might have once only been afforded to the Upper Class can now be had by the Lower Class pretty easily. things like literacy, access to information, technology, etc. Even healthcare, while not ideal, has become much, much better for even the poor. With all of that said, there are still so many gaps that are not being closed. This is where I think cultural forces play a huge factor. Cynics will say that it’s the top keeping the bottom down, but I often see the bottom unable to jettison the anchors that come with their place in society. I suppose it’s a bit of both but this is where my conservatism perhaps rings most true. I still believe in bootstraps.

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      • There is something to this.
        Sure, the rising tide raised all the boats (excepting those in dry dock), but it also moved the water markers.
        It changed perceptions of flood and drought.

        re Bootstraps:
        Character and competence will naturally lead to conduct which exhibits those traits, leading in turn to circumstances consonant with the degree to which that character and competence have been attained.
        Here’s the kicker:
        This holds true from one values system to another.

        I’m in the woods right now, and it’s beginning to rain, so I will leave it at that.

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  6. I agree that social class is a thing and it matters but it is complicated by a whole lot of factors in the United States including geographical location and race. I also think is partially correct with your BSDI here. The debate in the Democratic Party/broader left is broadly this:

    1. Does the Democratic Party need the votes of White working class people to win elections?

    2. If yes, what percentage of this block do they need?

    3. What do the need to change or downplay in order to be attractive to the WWC?

    There is also a broader, unsolveable, and intractable debate about whether racism and other bigotries will disappear as wealth and income inequality disappears or are racism and bigotry free and independent of wealth and income inequality. For what it is worth, I think racism and bigotry exist largely independently of wealth and income inequality. We can get rid of want tomorrow and people will still have biases and bigotries that are prejudicial stereotypes of minorities.

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