A Matter of Class
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).