The US has at least two different systems of what gets termed "socioeconomic class". They are everywhere conflated, and this is bad.
Two of them I will term economic class and social class.
Economic class refers to money. It refers to the wealth or poverty of a person, and to the privileges they do or do not have because of their economic might or lack thereof.
Social class is what is being referred to by such terms as "middle class", "working class", "white collar", "professional", "blue collar", and the pejoratives "white trash" and "townie".
It is a common confusion – or intellectual dodge – to conflate social class with economic class. But what what differentiates, say, the middle class from the working class is not mere wealth or earning power; as we all know, a plumber (presumed working class) may make much more money than a professor (presumed professional).
To use myself as an illustration: I make very little money, so I am heir to the misfortunes that disproportionately impact the impecunious – the almost-certain forthcoming hike in T fares looms large in my anxieties right now – but I am a professional with an advanced degree and possession of the shibboleths of the professional class. I didn't stop being in the social class I had been in when I dropped to a much lower economic class. The privileges I lost were only those attendant to economic might; I retained the privileges of social position.
So, for instance, if I don't like the medical care I get from the doctors my state-subsidized health plan (thanks, Mitt!) gives me access to, I can't just whip out my checkbook and buy myself care from a better reputed specialist. Being poor might yet shorten my lifespan, as it curtails my access to care. But on the other hand, if I present with a serious booboo to just about any doctor, I will have narcotic pain relief offered me with no questions asked, because someone of my social class is not suspected of being one of those naughty "med-seeking" addicts. The decision of whether or not to trust me with a prescription for percoset is not made on the basis of the MassHealth card in my pocket marking me one of the precariat, but my hair style, my sense of fashion, my (lack of) make-up, my accent, my vocabulary, my body language, my (apparent) girth, my profession (which, note, doctors often ask as part of intake), and all the other things which locate me in a social class to observers that know the code. Contrariwise, a patient of mine – who is a white woman of almost my age – who is covered with tattoos, speaks with an Eastie accent, is over 200lbs, and wears spandex and bling and heavy make-up, gets screamed at by an ER nurse for med-seeking when she hadn't asked for medication at all, and just wanted an x-ray for an old bone-break she was frighted she had reinjured in a fall.
A common point of confusion is in how the two relate. Some people might think they are the same thing because many of the things that indicate social status cost money, and are therefore are less available to people of lower economic class. Or to put it more precisely, your economic class mediates your opportunities to perform social classes. College educations don't grow on trees, yo.
Mediates, yes, but does not determine. Just because your economic class is high enough to afford certain signs of a higher social class doesn't mean you will choose to spend your money on them; indeed you might prefer to spend your disposable income on the indicators of the class you're already in – encrusting something in Swarovski crystals doesn't make it higher class, just more expensive. And conversely there is much in class signaling which is not expensive or is free. I have spent less on my clothes in thrift stores than my working-class clients have in department stores. When I need to dress-to-dominate, I wear a lovely plum-colored blazer I picked up for, IIRC, $20. I'm pretty sure none of my working-class female patients have ever bought a blazer; I suspect none have ever shopped for one. Why would they?
And there is another way economic and social class relate. The privileges of social class can be worth cold, hard cash; you can make bank on conforming to the norms of privileged social classes. The secretary that has the "professional" appearance has a better shot at the promotion to "senior executive assistant" than her peer whose blue-collar roots show, quite aside from her actual work skills. The small business owner who appears "businesslike" has a better chance of getting a loan out of a banker than someone who seems like a tradesman. In this way performing social class can elevate one's economic class.
Thus social class and economic class are not identical, they are intersectional. They relate and they mediate one another, but they are not the same thing.
The difference between economic and social class is pretty obvious looked at this way, but there is a huge social pressure to conflate them.
It has long been commented (e.g. Fussell, Class) that discussing class is basically taboo in American culture: but, specifically, the class which it is taboo to discuss is social class. This presents a problem for Americans because social class is a real phenomenon, an important phenomenon around which huge amounts of American policy, politics, and culture organizes. It's the elephant in the American living room.
Social class is taboo to discuss, but economic class is not, and that presents an obvious "solution": Americans conflate social and economic class so they can talk about social class under the guise of talking about economic class.
This rhetorical substitution of economic class for social class has a particular virtue for people in more privileged social classes: it allows them to discuss the lack of privileges of the lower classes in a way that holds them blameless of bigotry. So it is okay – preferred, even – to discuss the difficulty of the poor to become non-poor due to lack of resources: how terrible it is that the poor are thwarted in their efforts to improve their employment by not having the money for interview clothing, for transit to better jobs, for qualifying education or training. Real problems all – but also handy substitutes for discussing the much, much more uncomfortable topics of discrimination against job applicants and promotion candidates for having an accent, a hair-do, a sense of style, an address on one's resume that is lower-class.
Another way we substitute economic class for social class is in the "polite" – i.e. euphemistic – terms we use for referring to social classes, terms which allude to type of work or educational attainment as the organizing principles of social class. That's what we're doing – and what I did above – when we use terms like "white collar" and "blue collar" and "professional" and "service-industry worker" and "college-educated". These are not worthless terms, but they are not actually the same thing as social class. We just use them as if they were. Two baristas stand at an espresso machine, pulling drinks for identical wages: for one, this is a day job while she pursues her singer-songwriter career while living out of her lover's condo on Beacon Hill; the other is working two jobs to support three children in an illegal apartment in the basement of an Everett triple-decker. These two women are both "service-industry workers", but if they turn out to have two different social classes, would this be a surprise?
The graduate school I went to has a mission to bring educational opportunities to those who have been historically denied them. It does a pretty good job of that. Consequently, a lot of my classmates were the first people in their families to get graduate degrees – or to go to college at all. This was, obviously, a thing the faculty and administration knew about – and even took pride in – so, bless them, it was addressed head on. We got some very interesting and useful instruction and support around the issue. I have no criticisms there; I think it was handled wonderfully and helpfully.
But I do note that even in this bastion of class-conscious psychologically-savvy expertise on adult students, always the issue was addressed in terms of "being the first in your family to go to college." Which is not wrong. But what they were really talking about was social class: the social classes in which going to college is not normal or normative, and the social classes in which it is. What they were warning us about was running afoul of the cultural expectations of members of a class that are neither familiar with what collegiate study entails nor much appreciative of it.
They warned us about being derided as "thinks you're too good for us now" and "snobs" for choosing to attend class or do homework over being available to our families for emotional labor and traditional obligations – which is to say, they warned us, in not so many words, that if our families were from lower classes, we might find ourselves attacked as class traitors, on the barrel-end of epithets used to disparage higher classes.
What they were telling us – extremely obliquely – was that if we weren't already in the professional class, we would be, and had already started the process of, acculturating into a new, higher class.
I came from a college-going family; the vast majority of my programming coworkers and friends attended college, and many had advanced degrees. The classmate seated next to me that does not come from a college-going family, that doesn't predominantly move in social circles of college-going people, almost certainly doesn't belong to the same class I do. Like the two baristas, we weren't all of the same social class, even as we sat in the same graduate school classroom. We were all "college educated" and on our way to being "professionals", but what class we were in at that time was not solely – or maybe even predominantly – a product of how much education we had. It was how normal it was to have that education in the people we came from.
I'm not saying that education and occupation have nothing to do with social class. To the contrary, I think I'm pointing out they have a lot to do with it. But I am pointing out that social class is something distinct from either.
And when we talk about education and occupation as a substitute for social class, we're talking about something a lot safer to discuss.
But if educational and occupation are not what social class is, then what is social class?
Social classes are cultures.
I wrote previously on what a culture is:
That's what a culture is: its thousands or millions of value assessments; a collective set of opinions as to what is right, and good, and tasteful, and useful, and pleasing, and normal, and appropriate, and decorous, and on, and on, and on.The social classes of the US are cultural groups: people who largely share values in what is good in dress, speech, occupation, food, recreation, family relations, personal style, worship, power relations, music, manners, morals, and so on and so forth.
Or put another way, a culture is a very large set (of thousands or millions) of value assessments held in common by a group of people. It doesn't require perfect congruence and conformity. Not every member culture has all the same value assessments as every other. Not every member shares in the common set of values to the same extent as every other. But people may be said to share a culture to the extent they share value assessments.
Social classes function like ethnicities or nationalities. They have entitativity. They command loyalty. They have customs. They have territories. They have insiders and outsiders; they Other others. They have rivalries. They are performative.
This is why there are such readily read class signifiers. This is why certain preferences and tastes are indicative of a larger cultural identity. It is, in crucial sense, the answer to the question, "Why do they dress like that?": "Because in our class, this is normal, and considered becoming."
Social class being culture means that all of what we know about culture is also true of class, and this is illuminating. For instance:
• Class identity is not entirely opt-in or otherwise self-determined: we are not just what we think we are, nor what some objective property designates us – we are as we are judged to be by others. We perform classes, as we perform cultures, and that performance is received, interpreted, and judged by the societal audience.
• Changing classes is a matter of acculturation – literally adopting a new culture, adopting its tastes, styles, norms, mores. As such, it can cause acculturative stress, and culture shock.
• People vary in how much they identify with their class.
• People vary in how cosmopolitan they are in their attitudes about class differences, in their awareness that there are class differences and tolerance of them.
• People prefer members of their own class. (When someone doesn't prefer members of their own class, they change to become members of the class whose members they prefer.) They will tend to stick with people of their own class, given the choice. (In fact it is a staple of stage and screen that cross-class friendships or romances are intrinsically outrageous and therefore a source of humor.)
To say these things is at once to point out the obvious and stray into dangerous territory. To say "social classes are cultures" is nicely abstract and bloodless, but concrete beating visceral implications are just under the skin of it.
In the US, we have a rule: to describe a person as "lower class" is an insult; less obviously, to describe them as "upper class" is as well. To describe something as "lower class" or "upper class" is to denigrate it, and to attribute a "lower class" or "upper class" thing to some one is to denigrate them. It is the designation "middle class", alone, which is virtuous – a fact which explains in a nutshell why, famously, all Americans arrogate the term to themselves. There is no neutral language for discussing social classes in the US, save our economic euphemisms. All the explicit terms we might use for them are electric with valence; all words are compliments or insults (or both).
There are people who have offered specific observations about these classes as cultures before, and they are mostly humorists – e.g. Fussell's Class, Foxworthy's "Redneck" shtick – trading on the Fool's privilege to speak the unforgivable with impunity in the face of the King.
For me to ascribe a custom or moral value to a class – for me to even describe class in terms of having customs or moral values, in the abstract – is dangerously close to – or, depending on whom you ask, entirely over the line of – disparaging people for not having the right culture. We are not even permitted to acknowledge these cultural differences exist.
Some years ago a local newspaper editor got on a bit of a hobby-horse about the growing illegality of cigarette smoking in public places. Notably, he raised the argument that banning smoking was an attack on "blue collar" "working class" people. This of course brought the obvious rebuttals: that just because someone was "blue collar", poor, poorly paid, worked with their hands, didn't mean they were too stupid to understand that smoking was bad for you; that not all "working class" people smoke; that the matter was simply one of good public health policy, and arose out of no inter-class hostility at all; and that the people that bore the brunt of the health consequences of second-hand smoke in places of public accommodation such as restaurants, bars, and hotels were the service workers in them – the waitstaff, bartenders, cleaning staff – that were themselves "blue collar".
While all that is true, none of it actually contradicts the contention, and he was absolutely right: cigarette smoking has come to be seen as uncouth among the middle class, but was (and remains) socially acceptable among the lower class, and as such is much more prevalent in that population. The ban on smoking in restaurants – which, let me be clear, I am wildly in favor of, being someone who can't patronize a business with cigarette smoking in it – was instituted largely by middle-class people to coerce lower-class people from engaging in a behavior that violated middle-class norms. It was not done to that purpose, but it was de facto classist.
The ruthless suppression of discussion of social class as culture means we cannot perceive, much less consider, reason, and debate about situations such as these.
When we rhetorically substitute economic class – or occupational or educational indicators – for social class, we project our own (classes') values on others. For instance, when we speak in terms of economic class, well, who wouldn't like more money? Surely someone of low economic class would like to move to a higher one. Surely (the middle class reasons) someone of low economic class would like to be availed of resources so that they can move up the economic class ladder: educational opportunities, interviewing assistance, donations of work-wear, etc. In other words: surely they would like to be more like us. Surely they would like to leave their social class and join ours.
This may come as a rude shock, but while most people would appreciate more money, not everybody wants to perform middle-classness. There are probably quite a lot of people who would prefer to move up the economic ladder not by going to college and taking up desk work and changing how they dress and speak, but by getting raises and being paid overtime when they work it and not having to endure wage theft and getting to dress and speak as they are accustomed.
Most people, at all times and in all places, do not like to give up their culture. Memento, terrigena. Suus cuique carus.
They most especially do not like to be forced to.
(They also don't much care to be forbidden to, those that are inclined to leave one culture for another.)
Yet social classes are different from most other sorts of cultures in one very important way: they exist in hierarchy. That is why we call them "classes" (as opposed to any of our other terms for cultural groups) and talk about them being "higher" and "lower" than one another.
I'm not going to explore the nature of that hierarchy today, not least because I'm still figuring it out. (There's a lot of "everything everyone thinks they know is wrong" sign about the topic. It involves careful consideration.) But I will observe this:
Neighboring social classes socially abut.
People in a given class are most likely to know people of their own class. But of people of other classes that they know, they are most likely to know people of the class immediately "above" theirs and immediately "below" theirs. Because those are the people they are most likely to encounter.
Obviously, I'm positing a system of more than three classes. I think Fussell's
Because people gravitate to people of their own class, and their daily lives tend to bring them into social contact predominantly with people who are members of the social classes one degree above and below, most people are very ignorant of the norms and values of the social classes more than one degree above or below their own.
This means that when people do encounter others from more distant classes, culture clash and hostility is a reasonably likely outcome. It is my suspicion that a substantial amount of the challenges of dealing with that most dread military commander, the General Public, are owing to culture clash. If in your job duties you work with the general public, whatever class you belong to, a lot of the people you encounter on the job don't belong to that class. Depending on which swath of the general public patronize of one's workplace, and which class one comes from – the waiter from Revere who works at a fancy steakhouse downtown, the doctor from Cambridge who works at the Boston Medical Center ER – it may be approximately none at all.
Working with the general public is widely seen as terrible, and I suspect this is a large part of why.
This also has a ramification for social mobility – for those who do wish to change classes. It is a common misconception that the primary obstacle to being in a much higher class is money to afford the things by which one performs that class. The limiting factor is not money, it is this: it is impossible to join a culture the ways of which you know nothing. You may come by money, but the ignorance of how to use it to perform that higher class will keep you out as adamantly as if there were a wall built around it.
And to the extent it is taboo to discuss social class – and social classes – explicitly, the wall is invisible. If nobody will tell you what the shibboleths are, then you can only learn them by direct, personal reconnaissance: getting close enough to observe it for yourself.
We humans can learn culture by immersion; in fact, that's generally how we do. It is by living and working and socializing with a people that we begin to adopt their ways. But that is precisely what most people do not have opportunities to do with people outside of their own class and the two adjacent classes. And when opportunities do present, they often find the cultural gap so uncomfortable, the experience so alienating, that they retreat from it.
If one wants to be in a higher class, one pretty much has to seek it out and go there, wherever it is. Of course, one could do this deliberately, if one knew that was how it worked. But we Americans are careful to always maintain that that is not how it works; that the difference is really about money; that the important difference is race, or political affinity, or region of the US, or anything else; that we're all one big, happy middle class.
These phenomena are stabilizing – calcifying – forces of social class in the US. It is not that we don't have social class mobility here, we do. But we have much less than the American myth pretends we do.
Americans tell themselves that because we don't have castes based on "birth" and inheritance and aristocracy, that you can "be anything" here. And that is, in a sense, true: there are no sumptuary laws preventing you from wearing anything you like, there are no customs forbidding people of certain trades from pursuing political office, there are no rules against social mobility. You can be anything you can figure out how to be.
It's just that it's almost impossible to learn how to be in a class much higher than the one you're in. And to the extent it's not impossible, it's something almost nobody will tell you how to do. You'll be substantially on your own for figuring it out. (Unless... well, see below.)
It is a tyranny of structurelessness: the rules are never explicit so they can never be appealed – or repealed.
We Americans do not need rules to "keep people in their place". We have an organic, emergent system that achieves the same thing. It grows out of the scrupulous silence about social class, that keeps those who might wish to reckon with it – or object to it – in the dark.
Above, I explain that educational level is not the same thing as social class, that your social class in the US is not determined by how much education you have.
But higher education does have a relationship to American social class. Just not quite the one people think it does.
The one great instrument of social mobility in the US is college. But it's not the degree. It's the socialization. College – residential college – is most people's one great shot (or not so great shot) at being socialized into a higher social class.
College admission interviews are largely auditions of the applicants' ability to perform a social class: to dress the right way, to speak the right way, to have the right manners, to observe the right rituals. College admission officers are tasked with doing something much like casting a play: they are selecting individuals who seem highly likely, with the appropriate (and ideally minimal) direction, to "succeed" at the roles in which they're being cast. The entering class will function as a great ensemble piece, with everyone playing that class for everyone else at least modestly well, while upperclassmen and professional academics and administrators carry the show.
Whether it's called "leadership", or "character", or "professionalism", or "workplace-readiness", or "professional orientation", or whatever they're calling it this week, what colleges are really talking about imbuing their students with is a social class. And they do it by being a little society of people of that social class, into which entering students are acculturated.
Obviously, not all colleges socialize their students into the same class; different colleges offer entry into different classes. Pretty much what we term "prestige" maps to height of social class. Some colleges – particularly commuter schools – are very handicapped in their ability to acculturate students, due to having less opportunity to.
This may sound horrifying to you if you romanticize the educational function of higher education, but I do not by explaining this mean to criticize it. To the contrary, I think this is the one part of college that is unambiguously worth the price – if it delivers a class to you to which you would not otherwise have access, and if you then can figure out how to leverage that into a higher economic class.
Maybe remember this the next time someone suggests community college is a great way to skip the expense of the first two years of a bachelor's degree.
I feel the need for a disclaimer of sorts. I am writing about class and some of the injustices of classism, but I do not particularly pretend to position myself as an enemy of classism: I'm pretty classist.
And by "pretty classist", I don't mean in the sense of "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist" or "gee, internalized misogyny is hard to totally eradicate". No, I mean closer to Segregation and PUAs.
I was raised in a family that was explicit in its classism. I do not mean some sort of vague pretend-aristocratic snobbery that ranked people's "worthiness" to receive decent treatment or equality before the eyes of the law. I was taught not that there were "better" and "worse" people, but that there were better and worse ways to be – and if you're thinking that's a mighty fine hair to split, you'd be right – and we, in our family, were doing the better way. Other people could do what they want, be in the classes they wanted; we were aiming higher.
My parents were born of blue collar families in blue collar communities and were of concerted agreement that their life goals were to flee that class and never have anything to do with it again. Elevating their – and their progeny's – social class was the family project. They enlisted my sister and I in this project, and were explicit, formal, and unapologetic about it.
Normal professional-class-aspirant families police their children's class performance by characterizing undesirable behaviors are "rude"[*], or "not nice". Mine would just characterize them as lower class. My parents couldn't care less if we said "please" and "thank you" (I had to be housebroken by friends), but would verbally check us in a heartbeat if the vowel in our "to" started getting too schwa-like.
[* But, of course, it's worth thinking about what the word "rude" literally means. But that's a topic for another post.]
They were hampered in this project by two things. The first was their own blue collar upbringings, and the limits of their opportunities for socialization in higher classes. But they were very smart, and very determined. My father got his ticket punched through going to college; my mother went to a secretarial school, and then worked in law firms. But being outsiders, acculturating, their grasp of their target class was imperfect; they made mistakes. For instance, I believe they badly misjudged the class of the neighborhood they moved us to when I was five, and I think they did so because of erroneous beliefs they had about how to judge the social class of a neighborhood.
The second was a lack of vocabulary with which to make their instruction as explicit as they would have preferred. This was remedied by the publication of Fussell's Class the year I turned twelve. My mother assigned the book to my sister and I and from then on, we had a common language to discuss the family's primary preoccupation. ("Mom, is this shirt too prole?")
Being raised thus, I am in a strange place with regard to social class. I reject their moral judgmentalism regarding class. Because I was raised in a higher class than they were, I see their class insecurity as, itself, an indicator of their humbler origins.
Yet because I was raised with social class acknowledged so explicitly, it is not invisible to me. It was simply not taboo to discuss in my family of origin. And as such – as intended – upward social mobility was much more available to me than it otherwise would have been; I got to make very conscious choices at a young age which served me well at advancing my social standing.
And because I grew up talking about it, class relations – including what may, or may not, be class oppression and injustice – are very visible to me in a way that, clearly, they aren't to most Americans. I am better positioned to just notice what is happening when it happens around me.
But then, on a third hand, I, too, have my own social class affiliation, and it is as dear to me as anyone's is to them. I am in no way transcended over my class loyalty. I look at other classes and go, "Ew", and, "Oy". I have in no way bought into the idea that all classes are equally good ways to be. I'm on-board with the idea that all people have equal rights before the law, and entitled to a baseline level of respect as fellow humans, but I'm not sure how much further than that I go. Somedays, the extent of my charitability is the possibly very problematic and never actually said aloud, "Well, what with how hard it is to change social class, you probably can't help being like you are."
I empathize when social classes not mine find themselves on the short end of the stick, such as in the above account of smoking regulations, but that doesn't mean I'd do anything to change that outcome. Like, "Wow, it must suck to have your class' norms so disrespected by a change in the law like that. Welp, I'm off to buy a burger in this now refreshingly smoke-free burger joint, and discuss with my class-peers how else we can change public policy to make it more support my class' norms – even, if necessary, at your class' norms' expense."
A thing that has been very frustrating to me is that most books and other discussions I have been able to find that really address that social classes are cultures have come out of the Right. Again this pattern: the Right, at least, admits the phenomenon exists, mostly so they can hate on people (also see "culture of poverty"); the Left engages in Orwellian doublethink, insisting the problem doesn't exist and shouldn't be spoken of.
The one position I cannot find much represented is a discussion of social class as culture which treats those cultures with the sort of baseline respect one (or at least people of my class!) would expect shown to an ethnic, regional, or national culture. It is no longer considered tolerable (at least in my class!) to describe an ethnic, regional, or national culture with contempt, as broken or defective – unless it is one's own, and one is making an insider critique to other insiders. Yet that is precisely how discussion of (others') class cultures typically proceeds. I'm not even entirely sure I can get on-board with the idea that all US social classes are equally valid and worthwhile cultures, but it would sure be nice to see somebody working from that premise.
Please note: for purposes of this discussion, the topics of race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and native language are all derails of the topic, which is class.
There is a huge tendency in the US to attempt to conflate race and class. Do not do this. Most especially do not do it here. I hope at some further date to discuss intersectionalities of race and class in the US, but not today. I will merely advise you that many (or even most) people – white, and black, and other – wind up saying things they don't even realize are hideously racist (anti-black) when they start talking about what they assume are the relationships between class and race. So let's leave race out of it for the moment.
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